Once heralded as the answer to beating cigarette addiction, vaping has increasingly been revealed as anything but risk-free over the past few years. It’s been shown to negatively impact the lungs and heart, and has been linked to a mysterious rise in injury and deaths among users.
A new study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, has found yet another drawback. Researchers at UCLA have found that just one 30-minute vaping session is enough to significantly increase cellular oxidative stress – a phenomenon caused by cells creating and storing an excess of free radicals and not enough antioxidants to deal with them.
Free radicals and antioxidants need to be able to keep each other in check. Cellular oxidative stress occurs when there's an imbalance between the two, and free radicals rampage through cells and damage tissue, proteins, and DNA. This damage has been linked to the development of diseases, conditions like strokes, and can even speed up the aging process.
“Over time, this imbalance can play a significant role in causing certain illnesses, including cardiovascular, pulmonary and neurological diseases, as well as cancer,” explained senior author Holly Middlekauff. “We were surprised by the gravity of the effect that one vaping session can have on healthy young people.”
The researchers recruited 32 test subjects ranging in age from 21 to 33: nine were cigarette smokers, 12 were vapers, and the remaining 11 were the non-smoking control group. The participants all took part in a half-hour vaping session, with the team sampling immune cells both before and after the experience.
The results were stark: for the non-smoking and -vaping crowd, oxidative stress levels were two to four times higher after the vape than beforehand. That’s especially worrying, says Middlekauff, given the unremarkable scenario the researchers recreated.
“This brief vaping session was not dissimilar to what they may experience at a party,” said Middlekauff, “yet the effects were dramatic.”
For the regular smokers and vapers, the researchers noted, the session had no effect on their oxidative stress levels. That’s probably not a case of smokers being extra hardy – seriously, it’s unlikely – but more to do with baseline oxidative stress levels already being higher in those participants.
What’s not quite clear yet is why those oxidative stress levels are being increased, with the team unsure as to whether it comes down to the nicotine or non-nicotine elements in e-cigarettes. While there’s no doubt that cigarette smoke elevates oxidative stress, the role of nicotine on its own is potentially more nuanced. Vaping isn’t exactly short on potential toxins either, so the team’s next goal is figuring out what exactly is causing the effect.
“While there’s a perception that e-cigarettes are safer than tobacco cigarettes, these findings show clearly and definitively that there is no safe level of vaping,” said Middlekauff. “The results are clear, unambiguous and concerning.”