Vaping Introduces DNA-Damaging Chemicals Into Mouth Cells in New Study

Changes to DNA can lead to increased cancer risk.

Unsplash / Itay Kabalo

The small body of research on vaping has shown that it’s probably safer than smoking cigarettes, at least by some measures, and it’s definitely seen as the cooler vice. Its longer-term health effects, however, are still being uncovered. Now, new research presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society shows e-cigarette use can have worryingly permanent effects, contributing to DNA damage associated with oral cancers.

On Tuesday morning, a team of researchers led by Silvia Balbo, Ph.D., of the Masonic Cancer Center in Minnesota will present the results of a small study showing that vaping can introduce DNA-harming chemicals into users’ mouths. These chemicals — formaldehyde, acrolein, and methylglyoxal — have been shown to damage DNA, which is usually associated with an increased cancer risk. Sure enough, in the study, the researchers found evidence that the vapers in the study had DNA damage in the cells in their mouths.

To conduct this study, the researchers took saliva samples from volunteers before and after a 15-minute vape sesh. They analyzed these samples and found that four out of the five vapers had elevated levels of formaldehyde, acrolein, and methylglyoxal when compared to the five control subjects. Furthermore, cell samples taken from the subjects’ mouths showed evidence of DNA damage, which can lead to cancer if it’s not repaired.

While there has not yet been any long-term study to assess the cancer risks associated with e-cigarette use, this study raises some concerns that the harm-reduction method is not without its dangers.

“E-cigarettes are a popular trend, but the long-term health effects are unknown,” said Romel Dator, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the Masonic Cancer Center and one of the authors on the study.

It’s still not totally clear what the long-term effects of the chemicals addressed in this study could be for e-cigarette users. Formaldehyde and acrolein are considered quite toxic, while methylglyoxal has been shown to have some antimicrobial benefits as well as the ability to kill cancer cells. So while this study may be alarming, it will take further research to assess the full risk profile of vaping.

“We still don’t know exactly what these e-cigarette devices are doing and what kinds of effects they may have on health, but our findings suggest that a closer look is warranted,” said Balbo.

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