by Natasha Fiera
Recent research from New York University’s department of environmental science challenged the assumption that e-cigarettes are healthier to use during pregnancy than tobacco-containing over the counter ‘fags’. The study suggests that the vapour from e-cigarettes could be equally as harmful as tobacco to pregnant women and their unborn babies. Scientists warn pregnant e-cigarette users that vaporizers may damage the development of their unborn babies’ brain. This could be an increasing problem as many women who fall pregnant may begin to use these products to protect their babies against the health risks of the tobacco-containing cigarettes.
Electronic cigarettes, generally referred to as ‘e-cigarettes’ are commonly used as an alternate way to smoke – without the use of tobacco. These battery-powered vaporizers contain e-liquids which produce a vapour, which the user will inhale. E-liquids contain two main chemicals – propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine, they are available with varying concentrations of nicotine and additional flavours to make smoking a more pleasant experience. Many individuals view these products as being less damaging than usual over-the-counter cigarettes, they are often used to help people quit smoking and gradually diminish their dependence on nicotine. As e-cigarettes have only been available in the market since 2004, the long-term health risks are still questionable.
Scientists identified this potential problem when conducting a study on mice. The volatile substances in the e-cigarette vapour were shown to have detrimental effects on the activity of thousands of genes in the developing frontal cortex of the mice’s brains. This particular section of the brain is responsible for higher mental functions, such as voluntary movement, long-term memory, moral integrity and social cognition. Damage to this area could therefore affect coordination, memory and learning ability later in life of the unborn child. Similar to the use of ordinary cigarettes during pregnancy, the risk of learning difficulties and attentional deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) are positively correlated with the vapour from e-cigarettes. Another study (which is still being continued) revealed that exposure of e-cigarettes to mice just after birth or mice in late gestation, cause hyperactivity and faster paced movements in the offspring than the offspring of mice who have not been exposed to e-cigarettes.
Additional studies by the research team, examined the offspring later in life of a mother who was exposed to e-cigarette vapour. The three to five-week-old-male offspring had lower concentrations of sperm – which was significantly less active than the sperm from the offspring of the non-exposed mothers. Hence, the e-cigarette vapour potentially could affect not only brain development but could also affect male fertility. British Fertility Society’s chairman, Professor Adam Balen,said: “Whilst e-cigarettes may help some people to stop smoking real cigarettes, one cannot escape the reality that various chemicals are still being inhaled that have potentially harmful effects both to health, fertility and also the non-consenting participant that is the baby.”
It is under the assumption that the nicotine within the vaporizer is the most harmful component of the e-liquid, due to its addictive properties. Studies have additionally demonstrated that besides nicotine’s addictive characteristics, it is in fact harmless and the other chemicals in the vapour have actually more of an effect on nervous system development than tobacco.
A study exposed mice to the vapour from an e-cigarette without nicotine, revealing the largest number of changes; some genes of the mice were enhanced and others reduced and females were in fact more susceptible than males. Professor Zelikoff, New York University states “What people don’t realise is that even without nicotine there are many things that are given off when you heat up and vaporise these products.”
Smoking an e-cigarette containing harmful vapour, should be regarded in the same way that second hand smoking is. New York University has given us first-hand evidence that smoking e-cigarettes can be just as unsafe as regular smoking – despite having zero tobacco. Although the research was conducted on mice as opposed to humans, it is now recommended by The British Feritility Society that pregnant women “avoid all kinds of smoking”.