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Scientific Misunderstanding in Vaping Science

Another scientific analysis of vaping showed that scientific analyses of vaping continue to be insufficiently informed on the subject matter. What gives?

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?

Understanding Harm in Electronically Vaporized Nicotine Products

An attempt to explain the idea of a baseline risk profile for electronically vaporized nicotine, which should be the basis for discussing risk in their usage.

There are a large number of legislative and public-health efforts surrounding electronic vaporizers of nicotine-containing liquids. Some positive, some negative. Likewise, a large number of studies are either underway or have been conducted. Some positive, some negative.

But at the base of the questions comes a single question: how do we quantify the potential harm?

For this we turn to what we can call risk profiles. We’ll start with an unrelated subject: knives.

There’s an anecdote that says roughly that the duller the knife, the less safe it is. How can that be? Well, we can imagine all the potential knifes, from blunt to dull to barely sharp to razor. The duller end of the spectrum tends to require more cutting force, which leads to a greater potential for that force to become misdirected or wild. A sharper knife also tends to command more attention to handling, more respect.

And so on. So we look at so-called e-cigarettes.

One study purports to find minute levels (but not levels that raise concern compared to current occupational guidelines) of certain metals. The methodology of this study may have other issues, but take it as granted for the moment that for the tested devices these metals are present in minute levels. This is an increase in the risk of these particular devices.

But we want a baseline risk profile. A baseline gives us the ability to ascertain the ideal level of risk for any actual use. It gives us something to compare actual risk against. While we can compare risk to the control, or to the cigarette, comparing to a meaningful baseline gives us a better gauge of how much risk we are adding in a more complex scenario, rather than relative to control or to cigarettes.

What’s safest, according to what we know? A dripping atomizer made of a well-machined, clean, single, high-purity/surgical-grade metal. A coil made of clean resistance wire and with a silica wick. Juice made with only propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, and nicotine (no flavoring). A device that heats the coil only enough to vaporize the liquid.

This would be something close to the baseline. It is a conservative set-up. You remove as many extra parts as possible. No filler, no cotton, no non-resistance wire, no solder joining non-resistance to resistance wire, no rubber o-rings, etc. You still need an insulator to separate the positive and negative posts, but that can be ceramic, and contact with the vaporization chamber and juice can be minimized.

With a baseline setup, the risk seems to come down to three substances in very low levels. Formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acrolein may be present at low levels. The less heat, the less chance of them being present and the lower levels they will be found at. Acrolein will be entirely absent unless excessive heat is being produced (280°C) in vegetable glycerin.

In all likelihood the risk of the baseline is significantly lower than the average North American diet. But that’s the baseline. The more complex the setup (adding a plastic tank (glass maintains the low risk), cotton wick (that’s organic and capable of burning in contact with a coil if dry), rubber (o-rings and insulators), solder, and flavorings) all add potential increases to the baseline harm.

The baseline has very minimal harm potential. Low enough that adding it to your normal life should not increase risk significantly. That’s what the data says today, anyway. And compared to the levels of volatile organic compounds in actual cigarettes (which do contain a significant risk, but not an absolute risk like being shot point-blank as the risk is often portrayed in the media), it is low enough risk that wasting time on public-use bans and other inanities miss the point.

Even the more complex vaping scenarios still stay well below the risk of traditional cigarettes and many other daily risks.

The Food and Drug Administration should be proposing their regulations for electronically vaporized nicotine products in the near future.

Eating the Future

Overview of some of the places the future of food may be heading.

It used to be that in the future we would all eat seaweed. So I hear, anyway, that was the grand prediction from popular science and the like in, say, the 1970s. I’ve still not eaten any seaweed.

These days we are seeing some new shifts in potential future foods. It’s important to note first that:

  1. Some other people do actually eat seaweed today
  2. Our diets have shifted even if not as radically as some past predictions suggested they would

Regarding [2], as an economy grows the people eat more animal flesh, for example. There’s also soda and other luxuries of the sort. But our diets have also changed without us changing them directly. Farming methods, crop selections, shipping methods, subsidies, regulations, and other factors have put different foods in our mouths without any change on our end.

One alternative to seaweed may be vat-grown animal flesh. Fake in the sense that it won’t be obtained through slaughter, it will be composed out of real animal cells, grown in vats in very different farms resembling labs more than anything to do with Old MacDonald

…And on that farm’s sanitized stainless steel work counter he had a centrifuge, with a whirrrrrrr here and a whirrrrrrr there, here a…

There was recently a non-event where some beta-quality lab burgers were served up. Of course, it will take time for acceptance of this food, and equally long to bring production quantity and quality forth.

Insects also have the buzz lately as a potential food source for our future. They’ve been eaten as long as humans have been around (both intentionally and unintentionally, of course).

The only real reason you aren’t eating bugs this very moment is that some people think they are gross. Go figure, when these same people may enjoy any number of foods you and I find downright horrid. Still, lots of people have stories about the time they tried chocolate covered ants or some such.

It seems likely that tiny creatures may crawl into our mouths in the future.

And Soylent, named after the film, Soylent Green. Actual Soylent is a so-called food substitute. Of course, it’s food, which does make a fine substitute for itself.

It’s a powder of various nutrients and so forth, meant to constitute a meal. It is mixed with water to produce a drinkable meal.

The basic idea comes from our pets which subsist on small pellets of homogeneous food without complaint for their whole lives. If they can do it, who could possibly think that human biology is so special to preclude an equivalent?

If made to cost very little, and be palatable, and safe to rely on, Soylent or something like it could do major damage to hunger, while improving efficiency.

It could theoretically help diminish obesity, food waste issues, and even ease losses from damaged crops (if they still contain respectable levels of extractable nutrients, but merely fall short on saleability) too.

Who knows where this product will end up, or others like it. As a side dish? As an ingredient in other preparations? The future of eating has many options.

The fast food connoisseur of the future’s order: “I’ll have a vat burger, medium french fried grasshoppers, and a Bloomberg* of Soyda**.”

* Bloomberg means the largest beverage size available.
** Soyda is a Soylent-based soda substitute.