Scientific Misunderstanding in Vaping Science

A letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Hidden Formaldehyde in E-Cigarette Aerosols”, discusses an analysis on the production of formaldehyde from heating ecig liquids. And once again we have a scientific analysis that is based on a misunderstanding of the investigated system.

Their analysis showed high levels of formaldehyde production, but that finding directly resulted from overheating a tank system that was not designed for the test conditions. The authors were unaware of the constraints of the tested device, and they marched on believing that real people would use the device according to their test protocol.

These are likely very intelligent people, so how can they get it so wrong? They know a bit about chemistry and measurement and so on. But they failed to study the knowledge base they were working in. Not for a lack of its availability, what with the widespread information in the vaping community. For a lack of recognition that there is information they lacked.

They see a very simple system: fill with liquid, push a button, inhale. So we can measure what is inhaled. Oh, it has a dial that changes the voltage. We can see what they inhale at different voltages. Just as you can mismatch a light fixture with bulbs that fit but are not rated for the use, you can misuse ecigs.

There are other scientists doing meaningful work in this area. At the very least, these scientists could have consulted with those, agreed on protocols, and we could be on our way to having replicated results much sooner. Instead we have another dud of an investigation into formaldehyde in vaping, and we await the real results.

Formaldehyde is a known risk of vaping (one of the few), but an entirely avoidable risk as well. But we need the fine details of how much is produced under which conditions to know just how much effort is needed to eliminate the risk, and we do not have that data yet. And scientific misunderstanding, not knowing what they don’t know, muddies the water for safer products.

The other side of this debacle is that as these errors get repeated it hopefully raises scientific awareness of them. Future studies will focus more correctly on the real questions around vaping, and we will get our answers. It may take more time and money than necessary, but science tends to work like that. Indeed, I would not be surprised to see another half-dozen of these sorts of broken studies performed before the community-at-large clues in that this isn’t valuable information for science.

For a vaper it is a valuable lesson when they learn it themselves, in that they will tend to recreate the failed experiment and find it unpleasant and lower their power. The basis of a good vape is just enough heat and wicking to deliver a high-density vapor. Too much heat, an unvapable puff of formaldehyde. Too little heat, nothing to vape. Too much wicking, a gurgling, leaking pain-in-the-ass vape. Too little wicking, an unvapable puff of formaldehyde.

Vapers will naturally avoid all those conditions (or give up). The question for science is how big the margins are. How much formaldehyde can coincide with a good vape? And how do we eliminate it?