Vaping, Smoking and Lead

Vaping, smoking, and lead poisoning – let’s take a closer look at the bigger picture.

Vaping, Smoking and Lead @ LeadSafeWorld with images of hand holding cigarette and hand holding vape
Vaping and Smoking Both Lead Your Health to the Gutter. “Protect your health from lead and radioactive polonium-210 which decays to lead plus multiple other toxics by neither smoking nor vaping,” says Grandma Lead. Photographs by Elizabeth O’Brien.

When you come across statements like “vapes or e-cigs, they’re far less harmful than cigarettes and can help you quit smoking for good” ( National Health Service [NHS] UK, 2022 ), it’s no wonder that people consider trying e-cigarettes, also known as vapes. But the crucial question is whether this claim holds true.

“Some e-cigarettes are made to look like regular cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. Some resemble pens, USB sticks, and other everyday items.” Centers for Disease Control (2023)

Can Vaping Help You To Quit Smoking?

In Australia, with the exception of Western Australia, it is “illegal to use, sell or buy nicotine for use in e-cigarettes without a prescription” (Lung Foundation (a), n.d.).

The Lung Foundation Australia ((b) n.d.) emphasises that “nicotine e-cigarettes have not been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) or any equivalent foreign medicine regulator as a proven smoking cessation tool.”

In simpler terms, vapes are yet to be approved by TGA for their safety, quality, and effectiveness in helping people quit smoking. Research conducted by Chapman (2023) indicates that approximately 82% of people who vape are still smoking after six months or more. The Centers for Disease Control (2023) also found that many adult smokers who use vapes end up as “dual users,” continuing to smoke cigarettes alongside vaping.

Side Effects and Health Risks Associated with Vapes

Vaping has gained popularity among young adults, with 14.5% of 18 to 29-year-olds in Queensland identifying as vapers in 2022 (Miles & Pollard 2023). Nationally, the numbers are even higher, with 14.5% of Australians aged 14-17 years and almost 20% of Australians aged 18-24 years currently using vapes (Lung Foundation Australia, n.d. a).

However, the long-term risks of vaping remain uncertain, especially regarding the inhalation of flavourings present in the vapour (NHS Better Health n.d.). Associate Professor Larcombe’s research team discovered that vapes contained flavouring chemicals that the US FDA considers safe when ingested in food and drinks, but inhaling them long-term could pose different risks (2021).

Alarming findings by Lung Foundation Australia (n.d. a) revealed that 100% of vapes were inaccurately labelled, 100% contained chemicals with unknown effects on respiratory health, 21% contained nicotine despite this being illegal in Australia, and 62% contained chemicals likely to be toxic if used repeatedly.

Other Issues

Nicotine addiction is a significant concern, as it is highly addictive, and many vapes contain higher nicotine levels than cigarettes (Schmerling 2021). Harm to the lungs and heart is another issue, as vaping vapours may contain cancer-causing toxins, metals, and lung irritants, leading to an increased risk of lung diseases like asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (Schmerling 2021). Second-hand vapour can also trigger asthma in some individuals (Schmerling 2021).

Additionally, severe and potentially fatal lung injury, known as EVALI, has been linked to vaping. Prior to 2020, there were over 2,800 cases and 68 deaths associated with this condition (Schmerling 2021).

For pregnant individuals, vaping poses health risks to the developing brains and lungs of their babies (Schmerling 2021). Moreover, the risks to teens and children are heightened due to the harmful effects of nicotine on their developing brains, increasing the likelihood of addiction and potential future smoking habits (Schmerling 2021; U.S. Surgeon General 2023).

Lung Foundation Australia (n.d. b) succinctly states, “The human lungs are designed to breathe in clean air, not toxins and carcinogenic substances of any type.”

What are The Toxic Ingredients in Vapes and Cigarettes?

“What is in e-cigarette aerosol?” (Centers for Disease Control 2023)

According to the U.S. Surgeon General (2023), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (2023), Larcombe (2021), and Lung Foundation Australia (n.d. a), the following harmful and potentially harmful ingredients are present in vapes:

  • Nicotine (highly addictive, can harm the developing brain – particularly in areas that control attention, learning, mood, and behavioural control)
  • Ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs
  • Heavy metals, such as nickel, tin, and lead
  • Cadmium (a toxic metal found in traditional cigarettes that causes breathing problems and disease)
  • Benzene (a volatile organic compound found in car exhaust)
  • Carcinogenic chemicals including formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, and possible human carcinogen acrolein, all of which can cause irreversible lung damage
  • Propylene glycol, which is toxic to human cells
  • Diacetyl (a chemical linked to a serious lung disease “bronchiolitis obliterans” aka “popcorn lung)
  • Diethylene glycol (used in antifreeze and linked to lung disease)
  • Volatile organic compounds such as benzene (which is found in car exhaust)
  • 2-chlorophenol (often used in pesticides and disinfectants and is known to be a skin and lung irritant)
  • 2-aminooctanoic acid (a protein that is often found in faeces, urine, and blood of mammals)
  • Benzaldehyde (often added as flavouring, reduces the metabolising and detoxification of drugs, including nicotine, is a respiratory irritant)
  • Trans-cinnamaldehyde (often added as flavouring, reduces the metabolising and detoxification of drugs, including nicotine, has a severe effect on the immune cells of the lungs)
  • Menthol (often added as flavouring, yet also alters the effects of nicotine making it more addictive)

There’s More!

Apart from this extensive list, Australian scientists at Queensland Health’s Forensic and Scientific Services have begun testing vapes for polonium-210 (Miles & Pollard 2023), a radioactive element that decays to lead within 138 days after smoking or vaping and can raise your blood lead level.

Polonium-210 is known for causing lung cancer and is associated with lead poisoning (Mullins, in Miles & Pollard 2023). Additionally, Australian scientists had not only found dangerous substances in vaping solutions, but analysis of the actual e-cigarette casings had also identified more chemical horrors.

“We found a number of elements such as lead, chromium, aluminium in the metal parts of the device, which tells us that these might be inhaled by the people who use vapes” (Dr Komarova, in Miles & Pollard 2023).

The health effects and harmful doses of e-cigarette contents are still being studied, particularly for active users who inhale from a device as well as those exposed to second-hand aerosol (U.S. Surgeon General 2023).

Lung Foundation Australia (n.d. a) highlights that vaping risks include nicotine addiction, intentional and unintentional poisoning, acute nicotine toxicity causing seizures, burns and injuries, lung injury, indoor air pollution, environmental waste and fires, and dual use with cigarette smoking – increasing exposure to harmful toxic substances.

Polonium-210 is one of the most toxic elements found in tobacco smoke and, consequently, in second-hand smoke and vape smoke as well.

How Does Vaping and Smoking Cause Lead Poisoning?

Smokers, and those who live with smokers, tend to have higher levels of lead in their blood.

Radioactive materials, like polonium-210 and lead-210 are found naturally in the soil and air. They are also found in the high-phosphate fertilisers that farmers use on their crops.

Lead in Tobacco Plant

Polonium-210 and lead-210 get into and onto tobacco leaves and remain there even after the tobacco has been processed (Centers for Disease Control, 2015). The half-life or time it takes for half the lead-210 to radioactively decay to lead is 22.3 years but the polonium-210 is much quicker to decay to lead.

The presence of (non-radioactive) lead in tobacco can be attributed to contaminated soil, where tobacco plants absorb lead when grown in lead-contaminated areas. Additionally, if tobacco is cultivated in soil contaminated with radon, a radioactive metal, the radon can rise and adhere to the underside of tobacco leaves. As radon decays into polonium, and subsequently into lead, lead can accumulate in the tobacco plant.

Lead in the Air

When tobacco is smoked, either in cigarettes or pipes, polonium and lead fumes are released into the air. Both the smoker and those around them inhale these fumes directly, leading to higher blood lead levels.

The act of smoking also alters vitamin C metabolism, making it easier for the body of the smoker to absorb lead that enters their lungs through smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke.

Tertiary Smoking

Tertiary smoking is another factor to consider. This occurs when individuals are exposed to lead dust and fumes that settle on various surfaces.

When children touch or put their hands in their mouths after coming into contact with these surfaces, they ingest lead, putting them at risk of lead exposure. Tertiary smoking can happen in homes where smoking occurs, especially if lead-contaminated dust settles on soft furnishings, floors, and toys.

Furthermore, airborne lead dust can be a concern for smokers, particularly those who smoke at their workplace or in areas with lead exposure, such as lead smelter towns or lead mining towns. Any lead present in the air can be transformed into lead fumes, which the smoker can inhale.

Moreover, lead particles in the air (for instance from paint sanding or lead mining, smelting, lead acid battery manufacturing or recycling) can settle on the burning end of cigarettes, leading to even more lead being inhaled by the smoker than what was initially present in the cigarette or pipe.

Other Ways Smoking Can Increase Lead Exposure

Lastly, in venues where smoking was allowed in the past, lead can settle out of the air and be absorbed by carpets over time. This can lead to lead exposure when individuals come into contact with these carpets in places like Pilates and exercise classes or childcare centres held in buildings that were previously used for smoking.

Allowing the vape canisters and cigarette butts to enter the gutters can lead to lead contamination of stormwater, waterways, the ocean, and sediments.

Vape canisters and cigarette butts can cause lead contamination of our waterways. Photographs by Elizabeth O’Brien
Vape canisters and cigarette butts can cause lead contamination of our waterways. Photographs by Elizabeth O’Brien (adapted from Volcano Art Prize entry)

Vaping, Smoking and Lead Poisoning

Understanding how vaping and smoking can cause lead poisoning highlights the importance of addressing these health risks and taking necessary measures to protect individuals from the dangers associated with these practices.

The science is emerging as the health risks begin to unfold – and evidence is coming to the fore that shows that vaping, as well as smoking, can result in lead poisoning.


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