Teens Who Vape Show Higher Levels of Uranium and Lead, Scientists Find

Though cigarettes are almost certainly more deadly, new research once again suggests that there are downsides to e-cigarettes as well.

The research, published in the journal Tobacco Control, analyzed urine samples taken from teenage vapers. Among frequent vapers — those who vape between 5 to 19 days a month — urinary lead levels were 30 percent higher than in occasional users who used five or fewer days a month. Uranium levels, meanwhile, were twice as high for frequent vapers as occasional ones.

Those findings, according to the researchers, suggest that the use of e-cigarettes could spike the risk of metal exposure in youths. But they stress that the study was only observational and can't prove a causal link between vape habits and metal exposure.

"While vaping is thought to be a safe alternative to smoking, the aerosol still contains a range of chemicals, including heavy metals, that — with chronic exposure — may lead to long-term health effects," Kelly Burrowes, an associate professor at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute who was not involved in the study, said in a statement about the research.

Vaping has slightly waned in popularity among teens, according to the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey, but it still remains their dominant form of tobacco consumption, accounting for around 90 percent. Overall, about 10 percent of US high schoolers use e-cigarettes.

The US Food and Drug Administration has tried to crack down on underage vaping by banning many forms of flavored vapes, which are popular among teens. The ban, however, has been criticized for its loopholes that have failed to limit the flavor selection for disposable vapes.

Beyond concerns over addiction to nicotine — which some vapes deliver in much higher concentrations than cigarettes — the presence of toxic metals is another question that looms over the safety of these devices, especially since illegal ones have flooded the market.

"Cadmium and lead are often found in vape aerosol from the vape heating coil and soldering components," Burrowes said. "However, uranium has not typically been reported in e-liquids or vape aerosol, but is an interesting finding due to its high toxicity."

It's worth noting that some scientists have pushed back against the study's findings. Lion Shahab, co-director of the University College London's Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, noted that levels of lead exposure were below "typical reference values from the general population," and that the researchers did not use a control group in the form of teens who didn't vape at all.

As for uranium, Shahab said that the metal "specifically has many different important sources of exposure," like food and water — so vapes may not be the sole culprit here, if it indeed it is one.

"This study therefore cannot tell us anything about absolute increase in exposure to heavy metals from e-cigarette use in this population, only about relative exposure among less and more frequent e-cigarette users," Shahab said, via Science Media Centre. (He does think the research is "well-conducted," however.)

Overall, the study may not paint the full picture, but it does raise interesting questions. No amount of lead exposure is safe, so if vapes are ever proved to spread the toxic metal, there's a serious reckoning to be had about their risks.

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