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Vaping Isn't Safe, But It's Not The Nicotine. It's The Liquid, Researcher Says.

Government officials have warned people to avoid e-cigarettes after several people have died and hundreds of otherwise healthy people have ended up in emergency rooms across the country with lung damage that appears to be linked to vaping.

The illness has been dubbed “mysterious,” but new research may help explain what’s going on. A study exposing laboratory mice to the drug delivery liquid, known as “vape juice," found similar lung damage.

Researcher Farrah Kheradmand said she was surprised to discover that the vape juice was causing lung damage even without any nicotine added. Kheradmand is a professor of Pulmonary Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and senior author on the newly published study.

She and her team went to a vaping shop in Houston to get the exact ingredients in vape juice.

“And they said, ‘Oh yes, that’s easy. That's PGVG.’”

In other words: propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin.

“It has been manipulated to a point where vapers feel they get a very good hit in their lungs,” Kheradmand said. “It's the same kind of feeling as a cigarette smoke inhalation gives you—that you feel like something is really going down to your lungs.”

The problem is, the vape juice appears to be handicapping immune cells in the lungs. That’s what Kheradmand found in her lab mice.

“Their immune cells were…not working well,” she said. “Even a very small dose of influenza virus” killed most of the mice who had been breathing the vape juice, she said.

Why are these products considered safe?

The ingredients in vape juice have FDA approval for a completely different use, she explained. Intensive care units use propylene glycol in cases in which a strong solvent is needed to dissolve and deliver medication.

“We're very careful because we know propylene glycol has side effects and so we limit the amount of propylene glycol used in each case to 72 hours in order to minimize the amount of metabolic changes that these can induce,” she said.

But in these cases, the propylene glycol is being given intravenously.

“FDA has never, ever even tested or been asked to determine whether these things, these chemical solvents, are actually safe [for] inhalation, let alone chronic inhalation,” Kheradmand said.

How can a product be approved without knowing if it is safe?

“Good question,” she said.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.