PITTSBURGH — Adding flavors to e-cigarettes makes them more enticing, especially to underaged teens. Mint-flavored vaping products may be the worst culprit of it all. Not only is it a refreshing and less irritating additive, but researchers in Pittsburgh say it is the most toxic to your lungs than all the other e-cigarette flavors.
A new robotics study mimicked the mechanics of human breathing and vaping behavior and allowed scientists to see the concentration of toxic chemicals entering the body. Their findings showed a greater number of microparticles in menthol compared to menthol-free vape juice. These are very damaging to the lungs and can cause reduced lung function, such as shallow breathing.
“Many people, especially youth, erroneously assume that vaping is safe, but even nicotine-free vaping mixtures contain many compounds that can potentially damage the lungs,” says Kambez H. Benam, an associate professor in the division of pulmonary, allergy, and critical care Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and senior author of the study, in a media release. “Just because something is safe to consume as food does not mean that it’s safe to inhale.”
In an effort to discourage teens from smoking, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has pressured cigarette manufacturers to get rid of menthol in combustible tobacco products, such as regular cigarettes and cigars. However, as vaping products become more available, mint and menthol flavors remain a fan favorite among the 2.5 million youths who smoked e-cigarettes in 2022.
Why is it so difficult to prove vaping is dangerous?
One problem in getting vaping companies to ban mint and menthol flavors is that toxicity testing takes a long time to produce results. Waiting months for data makes it difficult for regulating bodies like the FDA to test for product safety.
Testing normally involves animals or living cells grown on a flat surface. Other approaches, such as animal studies, are not as helpful since mice are different anatomically in their nasal passages compared to humans. This prevents them from taking an active breath through the mouth, which is comparable to taking a cigarette puff. Cell models used to study the effects of e-liquids or continuous aerosols do not consider different human breathing patterns.
In the current study, the authors developed a “vaping robot” that imitates the temperature, humidity, volume, and duration of each puff. This lets the machine simulate patterns of healthy and diseased breathing as well as predict lung toxicity related to e-cigarettes.
The system is capable of measuring the size and number of toxic microparticles and how their quantity varies depending on the liquid composition. Scientists can then test the aerosol’s effects on an engineered “lung-on-chip” device to estimate the e-cigarette’s toxicity level.
When testing mint-flavored e-cigarettes, the researchers saw it was just as toxic as vitamin E acetate. This additive displays a connection with lung injuries when they are an ingredient in vapes and e-cigarettes. However, larger clinical trials are necessary to fully understand the total harm mint has on a person’s airways.
“The main message that we want to put out there is for people, especially young adults, who haven’t smoked before,” says Benam. “Switching to e-cigarettes may be a better, safer alternative for someone who is trying to quit smoking regular tobacco products. But it’s important to have full knowledge of e-cigarettes’ risks and benefits before trying them.”
The study is published in the journal Respiratory Research.