Even without nicotine, e-cigs still have negative effects. 

By Samantha Lauriello
August 21, 2019

Taking a drag from a sleek USB may feel cleaner than doing so from a tar-laden cigarette, but it turns out, e-cigarettes are also pretty damn dangerous. 

A new study published Tuesday in the journal Radiology found that inhaling e-cigarette vapor has an immediate, negative impact on the vascular system, aka the arteries and veins that carry blood throughout your body. What's more, the study looked at inhaling just the vapor alone, meaning it has a negative effect even without any nicotine or flavorings.

The news comes just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an investigation into nearly 100 reports of "severe lung illness associated with vaping," in less than two months, and across 14 states. Before that, in early August, 22 people across three states were hospitalized with severe lung damage due to vaping, and the Federal Drug Administration began investigating 127 reports of seizures possibly linked to vaping. The new study published in Radiology, however, shows that the effects of smoking e-cigarettes may go beyond the lungs. 

RELATED: The FDA Is Investigating 127 Reports of Seizures Possibly Related to Vaping—Here's What You Need to Know

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine recruited 31 healthy adults between the ages 18 and 35 who were all nonsmokers and first-time vapers. To measure changes in blood flow, researchers put a tight cuff around one thigh of each participant and used MRI technology to measure how quickly the blood flowed when the cuff was released both before and after smoking. 

Participants took 16 three-second puffs of an e-cigarette that contained only vape juice, or a mixture of water, glycerol, and propylene glycol (which help keep the cartridge's contents dissolved). After vaping, participants had overall worse circulation, stiffer arteries, and less oxygen in their blood.

Specifically, the participants' vessels dilated, on average, 34% less than they did before vaping. Blood acceleration was 26% slower, peak blood flow (the maximum blood flow through the vessels) was reduced by 18%, and oxygen levels in the vessels dropped by 20%. These findings suggest that vaping can cause significant changes to the inner lining of blood vessels, Alessandra Caporale, PhD, the lead study author and a post-doctoral researcher, said in a press release

RELATED: This Is What Happens When an E-Cigarette Explodes in Your Mouth

"While e-cigarette liquid may be relatively harmless, the vaporization process can transform the molecules—primarily propylene glycol and glycerol—into toxic substances," Felix W. Wehrli, PhD, the study's principal investigator and a professor of Radiologic Science and Biophysics, said in the release. "Beyond the harmful effects of nicotine, we've shown that vaping has a sudden, immediate effect on the body's vascular function, and could potentially lead to long-term harmful consequences."

The effects on the participants, however, were short-lived. Their vascular function returned to normal in a couple of hours. Still, Wehrli said, "Clearly if there is an effect after a single use of an e-cigarette, then you can imagine what kind of permanent damage could be caused after vaping regularly over years."

Wehrli added that more research is needed to understand the long-term effects of vaping on vascular health, but in the meantime, people should stay away from vaping all together. "I would warn young people to not even get started using e-cigarettes," he said. "The common belief is that the nicotine is what is toxic, but we have found that dangers exist, independent of nicotine."

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