Killer Vapor: Your Vaping Teen Could Be Sucking Up Formaldehyde and Antifreeze

Notes From a Single Mom: Our teenagers could be inhaling antifreeze and formaldehyde through unregulated vaping pens, part of CDC report on smoking.

I’m not a smoker, never have been. Unless you count all the candy cigarettes I inhaled as a teenager. They were cylindrical sticks of gum, rolled up in white paper, and the coolest thing was that when you blew on them, small clouds of sugar would puff out like smoke. They weren’t real cigarettes, but it was fun to pretend they were.

“Now you can look just like dad!” the enticing slogan on the package proclaimed.

Candy cigarettes have pretty much been laughed off the shelves as those faux-smokers have matured into today’s generation of parents. But after finding my daughter’s vape pen when she forgot to hide it from me, I’d like to start a campaign to bring those fake death sticks back.

Because these so-called vape pens are SCARY stuff, people!

For the unenlightened parents, like I was, vape pens are just another iteration of an e-cigarette, an electronic nicotine delivery system. They are devices about the size of a large cigar, made up of three components: a liquid cartridge, a rechargeable battery and a heating element (atomizer) that heats a flavored liquid, which may or may not contain nicotine. The heat turns the liquid into a vapor, and you inhale it. Sounds innocuous enough.

As my 17-year-old daughter said, “It’s not smoking. It’s vaping.”

Vaping has completely caught me off guard, but it is now all the rage among teenagers. According to a 2014 Monitoring the Future study, for the first time ever, more teens are using e-cigarettes than traditional tobacco cigarettes or other tobacco products.

“As one of the newest smoking-type products in recent years, e-cigarettes have made rapid inroads into the lives of American adolescents,” said Richard Miech, a senior investigator of the study. “Part of the reason for the popularity of e-cigarettes is the perception among teens that they do not harm health.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also weighed in with its 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey released on April 16, claiming that e-cigarette use among middle- and high school students tripled between 2013 and 2014. While the CDC did not have e-cigarette data specific to Native youth, the organization’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports that 62.3 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native high school students have tried cigarette smoking, and 24.6 percent are current smokers.

Even my own daughter, who has always been disgusted by cigarettes, has been completely sucked in by all the pretty, colorful packaging, fun flavors and what appears to be a dangerous trend. It’s dangerous because not much is known about the long-term effects of vaping and e-cigarettes, which have their origin in China and made their way to the States around 2007. The few studies that are around will tell you that more studies need to be done.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has regulated e-cigarettes for therapeutic purposes only, claims on its website that “e-cigarettes have not been fully studied, so consumers currently don’t know the potential risks of e-cigarettes when used as intended; how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or whether there are any benefits associated with using these products.”

Like my daughter, many teens—and habitual adult smokers as well—think vaping is far safer than smoking.

“It’s just sugar water, Mom,” said my daughter, who buys vaping juices that claim to be nicotine-free. She likes that the juices come in all her favorite flavors—birthday cake, pink lemonade and spiced chai latte.

And parents … that’s the real problem here. With no government regulation over the manufacturing of these e-liquids, nobody knows with any certainty what is really in them. Sure, it can say “nicotine-free” on the label, but how can you be sure? There are no accountability measures in place, so anyone could concoct these flavored juices in their bathtubs, slap an alluring label on them and sell them as fun, harmless sugar water to unsuspecting, uninformed, vulnerable young customers such as my daughter, who falls all over herself for anything that tastes or smells like a bakery confection.

In other words, she could very well be ingesting nicotine and getting addicted to it, and not even know it.

Some critics of vaping and e-cigarettes believe these products are an attempt by the tobacco industry to groom the next generation of smokers in what has become a $3 billion global industry. On Kaiser Permanente’s Don’t Buy the Lie website, e-cigarettes are the hot topic.

“Just because the vapor is white and doesn’t smell doesn’t mean that chemicals aren’t present,” said Tamara Wilgus, a project manager in Kaiser’s health education department. “Nicotine is odorless and tasteless, and the added flavors are used by these companies to attract youth.”

Tobacco companies haven’t given up on addicting people, she added. “They’re just using new tools.”

But according to a spokesperson for Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA), which represents a cross-section of vaping retailers, distributors and manufacturers, the tobacco industry has nothing to do with vaping and e-cigarettes—the industry considers vaping and smoking to be two different things. Moreover, the spokesperson said, many companies list their ingredients on the packaging, along with warning labels.

So what do we actually know about these vaping juices anyway, except that they come in nearly 8,000 fun, kid-friendly flavors? The liquid is a mixture of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavoring and nicotine—though apparently you can buy them without nicotine, as my daughter believes she is doing.

“Propylene Glycol is considered GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the FDA and EPA,” the Smoke Free Alternatives association says on its website. “It is used in non-toxic anti-freeze and considered safe for small children and pets. Propylene Glycol is a common ingredient in many foods, cosmetics, medicines and fog machines for stage performances.”

Parents, did you catch that? Do we really want our sons and daughters inhaling nontoxic antifreeze used in fog machines into their pure lungs?

Then there’s the issue of formaldehyde. A recent study by Portland State University published in the New England Journal of Medicine found some levels of formaldehyde in e-cigarette vapor that had been heated quickly, with the battery set to a high voltage. Vaping advocates claim that most people who vape would never heat their liquids at such a high intensity, and call the data misleading. Nonetheless, the Portland researchers said that the cancer risk for a heavy vapor user from inhaling formaldehyde is five to 15 times as high as that from cigarette smoking.

Whatever side of the formaldehyde debate you stand on, phones have been ringing off the hook at poison control centers across the country. The CDC reports that the number of calls to poison centers involving e-cigarette liquids containing nicotine rose from one per month in September 2010 to 215 per month in February 2014—and more than 51 percent of these calls involved children under age 5!

“We just don’t know,” said former FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg about the safety of e-cigarettes. Hamburg has referred to the vaping industry as “like the wild, wild West” because there are currently no regulations in place.

That said, the FDA proposed a rule last year that would extend its authority to regulate more tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. Critics say the proposal does not address e-liquid flavors. Some states have already stepped up to ban vaping in public places, as well as making it illegal to sell e-cigarettes to minors. But final federal regulations on e-cigarettes, specifically a ban on flavors that razzle-dazzle our youth, could take years.

So while tobacco companies and pro-vaping advocates duke it out with the FDA, individual states debate about it in their own legislatures, and researchers continue to gather data … guess what? Teenagers and adolescents will continue to vape. And when that definitive study or ruling about the long-term effects of vaping finally does come out, it may be too late for the current generation of teens.

By then, your children could already be addicted to nicotine and have done irreversible damage to their lungs. And the concern that many e-cigarette critics have—that vaping among teens could be the gateway to cigarette addiction as adults—could be great news for Big Tobacco, as a new generation of smokers will have been cultivated even before they can legally smoke. Of course, that’s the last thing we need, since more than 480,000 people in the U.S. die every year from smoking-related causes, according to the CDC.

Bottom line, parents: There are just too many red flags surrounding vaping and e-cigarettes. I have heard enough and read enough about this ridiculous vaping trend among teenagers—you know, that same group of kids who also brought us the Cinnamon Challenge? Though my daughter is just months away from turning 18, I plan to use my one last breath of custodial parenting to dissuade her from this dangerous, herd-like behavior.

I encourage all parents whose sons and daughters are vaping to do the same. Don’t wait for the official FDA ruling. Get educated, stay informed, and lay down your own rules within your households about e-cigarettes. They may not know it now, but your teenagers need you to step up and be those vigilant, annoying (cue the eye roll) parents who they have always counted on to keep them safe.

Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer, nonsmoker and concerned mother who is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.