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What’s inside that vape?

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4th May, 2023

We hear a lot about the dangers of vaping, but what’s actually inside them? NSW Health Pathology’s Clinical and Environmental Toxicology laboratory has been tasked with finding out.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has announced it will ban recre­ation­al vap­ing and lim­it the sale of vapes to phar­ma­cies, with health experts con­cerned about the rise of vap­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly among children.

NSW Health evi­dence sug­gests chil­dren are access­ing nico­tine vap­ing prod­ucts in increas­ing num­bers and many adults are also access­ing ille­gal nico­tine vap­ing products.

Since 2015, NSW Health Pathology’s Foren­sic & Ana­lyt­i­cal Sci­ence Service’s Clin­i­cal and Envi­ron­men­tal Tox­i­col­o­gy Lab­o­ra­to­ry has been test­ing e‑cigarettes (or vapes), to deter­mine their con­tents and assist the NSW Min­istry of Health with its sur­veil­lance and pub­lic health inves­ti­ga­tion activities.

Lab­o­ra­to­ry man­ag­er Iri­ni Roume­li­o­tis explains the need for cau­tion when open­ing the devices to test the contents.

A tool being used to break open a vape canister in a laboratory.
Break­ing open vapes for test­ing can be dif­fi­cult and dangerous.

“We have to use tools and a fair amount of force to get them open. Some prod­ucts have sparked and caught alight when we’ve tak­en them apart for test­ing,” Ms Roume­li­o­tis said.

“As a result, the team has devel­oped a safe work pro­ce­dure, ensur­ing there is always a sec­ond team mem­ber present dur­ing dis­as­sem­bling of devices.

“Sam­ple prepa­ra­tion is also very labour-inten­sive and involves lots of dilu­tions for each sample.

“Sam­ple extracts are typ­i­cal­ly dilut­ed to between 1 in a mil­lion and 1 in 4 mil­lion to ensure the devices used for analy­sis are not over­loaded with nico­tine, caus­ing con­t­a­m­i­na­tion issues.”

Most of the devices test­ed are found to con­tain nico­tine, even though many con­tain no ref­er­ence to nico­tine on the label.

The typ­i­cal con­cen­tra­tion of nico­tine found in vapes is 5 to 400 mg/cartridge or 20,000- 50,000 mg/L. The aver­age cig­a­rette con­tains about 12 mg of nicotine.

Ms Roume­li­o­tis says in addi­tion to nico­tine, oth­er chem­i­cals and met­als found inside vapes include:
• Flavourants such as diacetyl & Dike­tones flavourings
• Volatile organ­ic com­pounds, VOCs (such as benzene)
• Alde­hy­des (e.g., formalde­hyde, acetalde­hyde, and acrolein)
• Heavy met­als, such as Mer­cury, Lead, Chromi­um, Cad­mi­um, and Arsenic

A wad of material being removed from a green vape canister by gloved hands in a lab.
The con­tents of a vape.
A woman in a lab coat and safety glasses using a pipette and test tubes.
Prepar­ing sam­ples for testing.

”There is a per­cep­tion in the com­mu­ni­ty that vap­ing is a safer alter­na­tive to smok­ing tobac­co cig­a­rettes. How­ev­er, intro­duc­ing any chem­i­cals into the human body, espe­cial­ly direct­ly to the lungs as vap­ing does, is not safe,” Ms Roume­li­o­tis said.

“The new­er vape devices are also typ­i­cal­ly get­ting larg­er in size and more potent, con­tain­ing high­er con­cen­tra­tions of nicotine.”

Findings “a wake up call”

Res­pi­ra­to­ry Phys­i­ol­o­gist at Avon­dale Uni­ver­si­ty and expert in the field of nico­tine addic­tion Pro­fes­sor Renee Bit­toun said the results of the lab­o­ra­to­ry test­ing should be a wake-up call.

“The use of these prod­ucts among school-aged and young peo­ple is of great con­cern,” Prof Bit­toun said.

“E‑cigarettes con­tain­ing nico­tine are addic­tive. There is lim­it­ed evi­dence that vapes help peo­ple quit smok­ing but are in fact becom­ing a gate­way to smok­ing tobac­co in adolescents.”

Prof Bit­toun said all vape users are exposed to chem­i­cals and tox­ins that have the poten­tial to cause harm and more research is need­ed to mea­sure how much is being inhaled by young users.


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