Is Vaping Safe? E-cigarettes Could Damage Important Lung Cells That Fight Bacteria: Study

A study has linked vaping to damage to important cells in the lungs. Getty Images

Vaping could damage important immune cells in the lungs and trigger inflammation, according to a study.

Inside our lungs, protective cells known as alveolar macrophages fight and eat up debris such as bacteria, dust particles and allergens. The research published in the journal Thorax published by the BMJ indicates e-cigarette vapor disables these cells.

The researchers warned their findings add to concerns among health experts that vaping is perhaps not as healthy as previously thought.

But they acknowledged more research is needed to paint a more detailed picture of the potential long-term health risks of vaping.

Rates of vaping have spiked in the past decade and the U.S. vapor market is the biggest in the world, with retail sales expected to hit $5.5 billion this year.

To investigate what happens when e-cigarette oil evaporates and enters the lungs, the researchers recreated vaping and collected the resulting condensation.

They then took alveolar macrophage tissue from the lungs of eight, healthy non-smokers, and dosed a third with plain e-cigarette liquid, and another third with different strengths of vaped condensate with or without nicotine. A control group of cells was left untreated.

The cells exposed to the vapor were found to be harmed significantly more than those dosed with e-cigarette fluid: and the higher the concentration the worse the damage. Vapour also spiked the production of inflammatory chemicals.

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The vape condensate also appeared to hinder the ability to engulf bacteria.

After 24 hours, the cells that had been treated with vape condensate containing nicotine fared the worst.

The authors wrote: "Importantly, exposure of macrophages to [e-cigarette vapor condensate] induced many of the same cellular and functional changes in [alveolar macrophage] function seen in cigarette smokers and patients with COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease]."

Dr. David Thickett, lead author of the study and professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Birmingham, explained that while e-cigarettes appear to be safer than traditional cigarettes, they may still raise the risk of harm long-term.

He said e-cigarettes appear to contain fewer carcinogens, so are therefore safer in terms of cancer risk.

"But if you vape for 20 or 30 years and this can cause COPD, then that's something we need to know about," he said.

"I don't believe e-cigarettes are more harmful than ordinary cigarettes," he continued. "But we should have a cautious skepticism that they are as safe as we are being led to believe."