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Farsalinos on Formaldehyde

Several weeks ago, an article appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere, purportedly identifying a new vaping danger, significant formaldehyde levels that can be produced by vaping at unusually high temperatures. It appears that formaldehyde is produced in a wide variety of chemical reactions involving heat, and in cigarette smoking, it is one of the hundreds of dangerous substances involved. It is produced at trace levels in normal vaping as well, but the Times reported that when the vapor temperature becomes unusually high, the formaldehyde levels produced by vaping can approach those produced by smoking.

The article was based on a study by Dr. Miaciej Goniewicz of the Roswell Park Center for Cancer Research in Buffalo, New York, a scientist sympathetic to harm reduction policy. Goniewicz's was not alarmist (the element of alarm was added by journalists), but noted that unusually high vaping temperatures sometimes produced cigarette-like formaldehyde levels.

Konstantinos Farsalinos, one of the foremost European scientists associated with advocacy of harm reduction, has explained the phenomenon in a bit more detail in a blog at E-cigarette Research (re-posted at Nicotine Science and Policy, both sites all vapers should bookmark), and has cleared up some of the inaccuracies propagated in the story as reported in the press.

The chief take-away from the comments of Dr. Farsalinos is that this is a problem that can be solved by better engineering. Thus, while it is hardly surprising that anti-vapers hastened to push the alarm button, there is little cause for actual alarm (except on political grounds). The levels comparable to cigarette use were only produced at 4.8 volts, while at the more typical 3.2 and 4.0 levels, levels were anywhere from13-807 times lower than for cigarettes. Also, a top-coil atomizer was used. Farmalinos notes that he used such an atomizer at a similar voltage level for a recent clinical study of his own, and found that vapers could not use it, due to something he calls the "dry puff phenomenon". More could be ascertained, he thinks, if the researchers had recorded the resistance of the atomizers they used, which would have indicated how much energy was delivered, data Farsalinos considers crucial.

Recent generation products, and future mod units, are more likely to use more advanced bottom-coil atomizers for high-wattage vaping, and Farsolinos submits that better liquid supply in such units will produce more favorable results.

Using glycerine-based liquids rather than propylene glycol is another way of getting lower formaldehyde levels, according to Farsalinos.

Problems such as these will arise, as the harm reductionists in the informed scientific community are very well aware, and they are remediable. There is no need to let alarmist attacks by the anti-vaping press derail a life-saving cessation method.