Thursday, January 22, 2015

Formaldehyde from e-cigarettes won't give you cancer

Every few days, a public health study of some kind is published, usually a bad one, and the media gush over it. The miracle vegetable cures and health scare stories will never stop. Count on it.  Let's take a look at this week's edition.

The Wall Street Journal: Study Links E-Cigarettes to Formaldehyde, Cancer Risk

CBS: E-cigarette vapor filled with cancer-causing chemicals, researchers say

Reuters: Ramping up e-cigarette voltage produces more formaldehyde: study

There are plenty more examples on Google News, but you get the idea from these headlines. Michael Siegel wrote up a full take down of the study already. Here's the key point:

The conditions used to study the e-cigarette aerosol at the high voltage setting were unrealistic and under such conditions, a vaper would never be able to use the product ... the wattage being used was so high that the vaporizer was overheated ... creating a horrible taste which a vaper could not tolerate. This is sometimes referred to as the "dry puff phenomenon."
Without even looking at the paper a few things jump out at me. First of all, there's no point in evaluating the safety of any device if you're going to study it under unrealistic conditions. Imagine if the Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a study showing that drivers are more likely to crash their Ford Mustangs if they drive 100 mph everywhere they go. We'd all read that headline and say, "Well, yeah, obviously!" Driving dangerously like that would clearly make an accident more likely (hence why no one does it), but that wouldn't be Ford's fault. The same logic applies here. Study e-cigarettes under realistic conditions or the data you generate will be useless.

Nonetheless, there's something useful to glean from this study. E-cigarettes used at realistic voltage settings don't produce increased amounts of formaldehyde. Indeed most of them produce only trace amounts that pose no threat to human health, as Siegel also pointed out.

The more clinical evidence we collect, all of which currently vindicates e-cigarettes, the less useful these kinds of safety studies will become. At some point the divide between real world experience and the data retrieved from these deceptive studies will grow so wide that the debate will have to end. The best way to get data on e-cigarettes is to simply let people use them and watch what happens, so let's just do that.

Speaking of deception, have a look at those news articles. Notice how they frame the story, starting with the headline. They discuss the results uncritically and quote the authors of the study favorably, though a few minutes looking at the paper would have illustrated its flaws. To be fair, each story gives a few words to an e-cigarette trade group who rightly attacked the study, but the group was clearly set up as the antagonist. No wonder the public doesn't trust science journalists.

1 comment:

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