Most students at McGill have encountered a vape pen: Whether they’ve taken a hit from someone’s JUUL at a party, walked through a cloud of grape-scented vapour in front of McLennan, or bought one from the depanneur on the corner. In Canada in 2021, 13 per cent of youth aged 15 to 19 and 17 per cent of young adults aged 20 to 24 reported vaping at least once in the past 30 days. Among these people, 55 per cent said that they vape on a daily basis.
The side effects of e-cigarettes—colloquially called vapes—are largely unknown despite their widespread usage. Alarmingly, chronic and high-volume usage of vape pens has resulted in hospitalizations of many otherwise healthy individuals, with some cases ending in death.
But, what about the effects of infrequent vaping? Researchers at McGill are asking themselves this very same question.
In an interview with //The McGill Tribune//, Carolyn Baglole, associate professor in the Departments of Experimental Medicine and Pharmacology & Therapeutics and director of the McGill Research Centre for Cannabis, explained her rationale behind studying vaping.
“There is such little information on the health effects, particularly in the lungs, of these products,” Baglole said. “I do this work in the hope of filling in a major knowledge gap, given how common e-cigarette use is now.”
In a recent study published in //The FASEB Journal//, Baglole’s lab comprehensively profiled what happens in the lungs in response to low, but prolonged exposure to e-cigarettes. The study used eight to 12-week-old mice as test subjects. The control group was exposed to typical room air, while the test group was exposed to low levels of commercially available mango-flavoured JUUL vapour every day for four weeks.
The researchers found that there was an increased number of inflammation-related immune cells called neutrophils and lymphocytes present in the lungs of test mice. There were also a number of changes in mRNA and protein expression, especially those related to immune function and smoking-related diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).
“These findings suggested that these products are certainly not inert and could cause widespread changes before the onset of disease,” Baglole said.
So, what is actually in the ‘vape juice’ within each of these JUUL pods?
“What is provided by the manufacturer is the solvent, the carrier if you will. The most common one is a mixture of […] propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin,” Baglole explained. “Most e-liquids contain nicotine and a variety of chemicals that make up the flavourings.”
When the vape pen is activated, the atomizer, also known as the heating coil, is switched on, and the e-liquid in the cartridge is heated and turned into a vapour to be inhaled.
“Some metals are used in the heating coils of e-cigarettes,” Baglole said. “Metals such as nickel, chromium, arsenic, as well as lead have been detected in the aerosols. There have been some studies that have found higher levels of these metals in [blood and urine samples] of e-cigarette users as well.”
Though the effects of inhaling these chemicals and metals are not well-researched because of the relative novelty of e-cigarettes, some data suggest that they might induce an inflammatory response in the lungs.
“Chronic inflammation, if left unchecked and unbalanced for a long time, can lead to cardiopulmonary diseases,” Baglole added.
While e-cigarettes might have the potential for harm, Baglole believes that we must find a balance in regulating these products because giving “active smokers access to products like e-cigarettes, in order to quit smoking, is a worthy goal.” But, she adds, “we don’t want to make access so easy that youth are particularly inclined to pick up these e-cigarettes.”
When asked for her takeaways from studying vaping, Baglole said, “Our results and others have shown that these products are not inert. My advice would be if you don’t smoke, don’t vape.”