E-cigarettes are frequently used as an alternative to cigarettes containing tobacco. They are popular due to the many flavors that are available and the idea that they are not harmful to health. It is not yet known how healthy or unhealthy these devices actually are, since they are relatively new and the market is changing constantly. There is still uncertainty about the long-term effects on health. Sciensano is developing analytic methods to investigate e-cigarettes, including the identification of potentially harmful substances and monitoring the reported doses of nicotine.
E-cigarettes became popular as an alternative to conventional cigarettes, primarily due to the availability of different kinds of flavor and the idea that they are safer. Given that the number of users is increasing, there is a need for clarity concerning the safety of their use (and long-term use). Estimating their toxicity is challenging due to the constantly evolving nature of the e-cigarettes market. An e-cigarette actually heats up a mixture of various organic compounds to a few hundred degrees Celsius, using a metal resistance coil, which can lead to the formation of unknown products which the user then inhales. Some literature does actually exist on the formation of potentially harmful by-products detected in the vapors. In view of the fact that there are more than 8,000 flavors on the continually developing market, combined with the wide range of e-cigarette devices, it is a challenge to identify all of the potential substances in e-cigarette vapors.
Sciensano is helping to collect knowledge on the composition of e-cigarette aerosol. The initial focus is on developing quantitative nicotine determinations in the vapors so that the manufacturer’s product claims can be checked and verified. In the second part, we research the metal particles that come from the e-cigarette, which ultimately end up in the vapors and are inhaled. There is already information in literature on the presence of metals such as Cd, As, Fe, Cu, Al, Ni and Cr in the vapors. Unfortunately there is a lot of uncertainty about the actual metal concentrations, probably because of a range of factors that can affect the metal concentrations in the vapors. These include factors such as vapor temperature, e-liquid properties such as the pH, vapor behavior and the type of heating element. At Sciensano we are developing and validating a method for the quantification of various metals in e-cigarettes, taking into account the known factors that affect the final metal concentration.