America’s adolescents, who’ve grown up knowing the dangers of cigarette smoking, have not only become hooked on nicotine through e-cigarettes, but often don’t realize what other chemicals they’re ingesting when they vape.
In the wake of vaping-related health emergencies and several suspected vaping-linked deaths, the American Lung Association in September issued a new warning that e-cigarettes aren’t safe and can cause irreversible lung disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also called for people to stop vaping.
At Davidson College, two professors have been sounding the alarm bell about toxins in alternate tobacco products for years.
While industry defenders say it’s safer than smoking, Biology Professor Karen Bernd and Chemistry Professor Cindy Hauser say their research shows otherwise, and that the chemicals kids are inhaling pose a real threat to their lungs.
The two and their students have spent years collaborating, researching the chemical properties and biotoxicity in alternative tobacco products such as hookah and e-cigarettes. In 2016, they received a National Institutes of Health grant to support their research.
Flavors like lemon, mint and apple pie—popular with young vapers—may be considered safe in food, but inhaling them through hookahs and e-cigarettes is not, Bernd says.
“Regardless of their chemical composition, the vapor or smoke is hitting the lung cells, which can cause damage. Also, the stomach digests, the lungs do not, and these inhaled particles are small enough to get between lung cells and enter the bloodstream,” Bernd says. “I find it kind of scary because for so long it’s been seen as no big deal by so many people.
“I tell students, day after day you’re breathing in pollutants you have no control over,” she says. “This is a pollutant you can control. Know what you’re breathing in.”
Vaping, once touted as a way for smokers to quit cigarettes, has become a rampant practice among middle and high school students. And a tidal wave of vapers has now hit college campuses.
One in four high school seniors say they’ve vaped in the past 30 days. That’s more than double the number from 2017, when one in 10 seniors said they vaped during that time frame, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse survey released in September.
As more and more chemical components and bootleg knockoffs find their way into the e-cigarette market, hospitals across the United States have seen a surge of vaping-related emergencies, with lung damage severe enough to put young patients on ventilators. Several reported deaths of otherwise healthy young people have been linked to vaping.
The research at Davidson actually began with hookahs, the ceremonial waterpipes of ancient Middle Eastern cultures.
Hauser first became interested in hookahs after working with a colleague on smoking cessation in Romania and noticing how prevalent the practice was there. At around the same time, hookah bars started popping up around the United States, especially near college campuses.
Bernd’s research has included hookah and vaping, which has garnered great interest from students who’ve witnessed the rise in vaping among their peers. She and Hauser found similarities in the composition of the syrup that both types of devices use.
“In essence, it’s an aerosol that people are inhaling,” Hauser says. “There’s no safe way to smoke a hookah or e-cigarette—that syrup is toxic and generates a ton of particles.”
Awkward Commute to New Opportunity
The professors plan to continue their research into alternative tobacco products, which began about six years ago.
While the idea to combine forces came naturally, it wasn’t without challenges.
Bernd used to have to lug bulky canisters of chemicals down from her second-floor laboratory in the Watson Building, then walk across campus and haul them upstairs to Hauser’s laboratory in the Martin Building.
The E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center, built in 2016, has made the collaboration of the biologist, chemist and their students easier. Both professors have offices and research labs in the Wall Center.
“It was always a little tricky to walk the equivalent of two city blocks with your experiment, then have to walk back with it,” Bernd says. “We were collaborators despite that, but now the research is greatly facilitated by having our offices across the hall from each other and labs one floor apart.
“These spaces in Wall are great because they are not just for the sciences—they allow more interaction between people in all disciplines across campus,” she says. “Everybody uses these spaces.”
Both professors say their Wall Center lab spaces have allowed more students to work together on research that integrates both biology and chemistry and is extremely relevant to public health issues.
“My old lab used to fit two students at a time, my new lab fits six,” Hauser says. “It’s a nice place to work, I like being here and students want to be here. It’s a great place to do research.”
As today’s students prepare to become tomorrow’s doctors, scientists and public health leaders, their professors say the Wall Center’s modern laboratories, classrooms and offices offer better opportunities for research, collaboration and room to grow.
“If we’re going to be able to teach students for a world we don’t live in yet,” Bernd says, “we need the flexibility to expand and adapt.”