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Farsalinos defuses “media frenzy” over formaldehyde

Leading nicotine scientist Konstantinos Farsalinos reports a recent discussion with Japanese researcher Naoki Kunugita, who had claimed a wildly inflated level of “carcinogens” in a single Japanese e-cig product. In an effort to curtail the “media frenzy” such claims can set in motion, Farsalinos was able to clarify the issue, writing on the website e-cigarette research.

The flaws of the study making the claim were multiple – let’s begin with the nature of the carcinogen in question. Although it claimed to find 10 times the amount of “carcinogens” (plural), only one carcinogen was actually discussed, the notorious formaldehyde. This is a naturally occurring substance found universally in the environment. It is inevitably produced by a variety of natural processes, at levels easily tolerated by the body.

Formaldehyde is “present everywhere in the environment,” notes Farsalinos, “in every house, in every city, town, village, urban or rural area.” Its industrial uses include building materials. It is used in embalming fluid. It produces that funny smell in the bio lab whenever organs or animals are preserved. One wonders if biology teachers will soon be ordered to desist from exposing students to “carcinogens” by assigning them to dissect frogs.

Next flaw: the headline cherry-picked a single fluke finding of unknown cause instead of averaging the figures. Kunugita’s initial study looked at 13 brands of e-cigarette, and the average formaldehyde concentration in all samples was 4.2 mg./10 puffs, more than 50 times lower than that produced by smoking a cigarette (200 mg./cigarette, according to a Canadian research team).

A follow-up study of a newer device found 1600 mg./15 puffs, 400 times higher than the average for all the other devices, and indeed nearly 10 times the amount in a cigarette’s smoke. (It is unclear what produced this fluke finding – Farsalinos suggests inappropriately high power levels or a malfunctioning unit, or perhaps inordinately low levels of liquid.)

The journalists reporting on Kunugita’s research, however, picked the wildly divergent finding for their headline.
Clearly this kind of reporting serves the interests of one faction in the debate over vaping. It does not serve the aim of saving lives by maximizing smoking cessation efforts by the most effective means available.