Study shows e-cigarettes can harm lungs

Embargoed until: Publicly released:
A study led by researchers at the Telethon Kids Institute has shown that electronic cigarettes can cause lung damage and are not a harmless alternative to cigarettes.

Journal/conference: American Journal of Physiology: Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology

Organisation/s: Telethon Kids Institute

Media Release

Study shows e-cigarettes can harm lungs

A study led by researchers at the Telethon Kids Institute has shown that electronic cigarettes can cause lung damage and are not a harmless alternative to cigarettes.

In the first long-term study of its kind, published in the American Journal of Physiology: Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology, researchers compared the lung health of mice exposed to mainstream tobacco smoke with those exposed to aerosols from four different types of e- juices (the liquid in the e-cigarette) over an eight week period.

Results of the study, which was funded by the WA Health Department and included collaborators at Curtin University, showed that while the respiratory effects were different to those experienced when exposed to traditional cigarette smoke, some e-cigarettes could still result in significant lung damage.   

Lead author from the Telethon Kids Institute Associate Professor Alexander Larcombe said despite the growing popularity of e-cigarettes, few studies had been done on their potential impact on lung health.  

“E-cigarette use is increasing worldwide, particularly amongst young people, because they are often considered a safer option than traditional cigarettes,” Dr Larcombe said. “However, there is a lack of information on the respiratory health effects of these devices.

“Our study shows, for the first time, that long term exposure to e-cigarette aerosol during adolescence and early adulthood in mice is not harmless to the lungs, and can result in significant impairments in lung function.” 

But Dr Larcombe said each of the four e-juices they tested had different ingredient combinations and some had more severe respiratory effects than others.

“We found the two e-juices where the main chemical was propylene glycol had only a small impact on respiratory health,” Dr Larcombe said.

“But the two e-juices with glycerin as the main ingredient and only trace amounts of propylene glycol were almost as damaging to lung health as traditional cigarettes.

“It is clear from our study that even though some e-cigarettes are less dangerous than mainstream tobacco smoke, none are completely harmless and not smoking is the safest option.”

The main findings of the study were:

  • Mice exposed to traditional tobacco smoke had increased lung inflammation and a reduction in lung function (signs of difficulty breathing)
  • Mice exposed to aerosols from all four e-cigarettes did not have increased lung inflammation but did show a reduction in lung function
  • Mice exposed to glycerin based e-cigarettes also showed signs of impairments in lung health akin to tobacco smoke exposed mice
  • The lungs of mice exposed to tobacco smoke and most e-cigarettes didn’t develop properly, signalling early signs of long term damage
  • The absence or presence of nicotine in e-cigarettes did not affect lung health but nicotine did stunt overall body growth

Dr Larcombe said it was important to note that his study focussed only on the respiratory effects of e-cigarettes and not other potential hazards.

“Most e-cigarettes contain potentially dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde, so even if some types do not have major respiratory impacts, they could very well have other health impacts and more research is needed to examine the full body effects of these devices.”

-- ENDS –

Media contact:

Jasmine Raisbeck, Senior Communications Officer, Telethon Kids Institute
08 9489 7635 or 0437 575 875 or jasmine.raisbeck@telethonkids.org.au

About Telethon Kids Institute:

The Telethon Kids Institute is one of the largest, and most successful medical research institutes in Australia, comprising a dedicated and diverse team of more than 500 staff and students.

We've created a bold blueprint that brings together community, researchers, practitioners, policy makers and funders, who share our vision to improve the health and wellbeing of children through excellence in research.

The Institute is headed by leading paediatrician and infectious diseases expert Professor Jonathan Carapetis, with Founding Director Professor Fiona Stanley now Patron.

Telethon Kids is independent and not-for-profit. The majority of funding comes from our success in winning national and international competitive research grants.  We also receive significant philanthropic support from corporate Australia and the community.

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