E-Cigs Loaded With Germs and Fungi?

Harvard researchers found low levels of bacteria and fungus in some e-cig carts from 2013. Expect anti-vapers to latch onto this outdated and inconclusive study.

Expect the Harvard study to be added to the zombie vaping myth cannon. Although the study authors were quick to point out the limitations of their study, it seems unlikely that vaping critics will show the same level of discretion.

E-Cig Study Summary

If you do not have time to read this full article or the Harvard study, here is a quick summary. The researchers did not have enough data to draw any conclusions. They only had one sample of each product tested. The products tested, 38 eliquids and 37 ecig cartridges, were the top selling products from 2013.

If you are worried about fungi and bacteria at levels deemed not to be dangerous, even when exposed to at an environmental level, do not travel back in time and purchase certain cartridge systems at your local convenience store. The e-liquids they tested fared far better, with less frequent contamination and lower concentrations of bacteria and fungus when contaminated.

The study concluded: “EC (e-cigarette) products may be contaminated with microbial toxins. Further studies with large representative samples of products are needed.”

Serious vaping scientists like Dr. Konstantinos Farsalino may or may not weigh in on the Harvard researchers examination of bacteria and fungi in 6 year old cartridge ecig technology.

Farsalino debunked the toxic metals in e-cigs study, but this new study has enough flaws where it does not stand up to even minimal scrutiny from a layman. Of course calling the issues flaws is not entirely fair. The authors were quick to point out there was not much meat on the bone.  

Study Flaws

Before throwing away your vaping device and buying a pack of cigarettes, there is some salient information that must be considered. The first, and most obvious flaw is that the researchers focused on the ten best-selling vaping products from 2013. They proceeded to collect a total of 75 samples, 37 cartridges and 38 e-liquids. The flavors were classified into four groups: tobacco, menthol, fruit and other.

The vaping world has changed tremendously since 2013. It is pretty clear the products tested are not representative of what the majority of vapers use in 2019.

This study is akin to examining automobile pollution by testing the emissions of a 1989 Ford LTD Crown Victoria. Sure there are some on the road, and their loyal owners may swear by them, but they represent only a small portion of the miles driven in a given year.  

We have included a list of flavors tested. Spoiler alert- Vapor4Life is not on there. A total of ten manufacturers were selected and you can pick out a few. Logic “platinum” flavors and some of Blu’s best sellers from 2013 are tested. Haus has several entries, notably Washington Red and American Blend.

MarkTen is out of business, and was not launched until 2013. But there is a Winter Mint flavor, one of their more popular flavors, on the list. It is unclear who the manufacturer is based on the 2013 timeline. NJoy is definitely on the list and their Blue + Blackberry was tested. I assume that V2 and Vaporfi were tested as well.

They gathered their top 10 sellers from Nielsen, and if you want to take a look at the health of the vaping industry in 2013, check out this Nielsen c-store sales report. It lists the parent companies of all the devices tested.

The products they tested are a cool time capsule. When I reading these flavors, it was easy to picture the cigarette display at my local 7-Eleven circa 2012.  

Changes In E-Cig Industry Void Results

Anyone who cites this study as an example of e-cig dangers does not take into account any changes in manufacturing procedures, or quality control that have occurred in the last half decade. The cartridge e-cigs were tested at the height of their popularity. Today, it is a mature market with stable demand.

A demonstrable issue in the study is that cartridges fared much worse than ejuice in the study. E-juices were less frequently contaminated and the concentrations were far lower.

The cotton wicking in the cartridges was identified as a possible source of fungal and bacterial contamination. Two issues to point out. The popular Juul product uses silica wicking, not cotton. Check out our feature, The Truth and Technology Behind Juul and Nic Salts Revealed, for a deep dive into the innovations that Juul incorporated in their popular device.

Just as important, in the last few years there has been a huge push by coil manufacturers to vet their sources of cotton. In 2019, most manufacturers use or organic and medical grade cotton for their devices.

The fact that ejuices fared better than cartridges is noteworthy, as is the fact that tobacco flavors fared much worse than the sweeter ejuice flavors that adult vapers overwhelmingly prefer.  

Putting Study Results in Context

For the vaping industry to gain public acceptance, it will have to go above and beyond the safety practices of established industries. Just pointing out far more teens binge drink than vape does not protect the industry or your freedom to choose cigarette alternatives. The fact is that wealthy, educated individuals drink the most alcohol, and strict e-cigs laws punish marginalized groups.

This discrepancy in influence does not fully explain the potential San Francisco e-cig ban. It is hard to believe that city that takes pride championing harm reduction policies, to point of offering needle exchanges and safe injection sites, is willing to deny smokers alternatives to cigarettes. For reasons unclear, their political class views total nicotine abstinence as the gold-standard, and is not concerned that their LBGTQ+ community would be disproportionately impacted by these laws.

The goal of the vaping industry should be to do a better job than the alcohol industry. Alcohol is a literal scourge that kills thousands of minors annually. This is not an industry we want to be compared to, and this is why we have implemented strict age verification policies for our online store and Northbrook, Illinois vape shop.

Study Methodology

The study authors selected the highest nicotine strength available. They tested for endotoxin, which composes the cell walls of certain bacteria and glucan. Specifically, they looked D-Glucan which a component of fungi and has been shown to cause lung inflammation.

Endotoxin was only found in 23 percent of the products, but glucan was found in 81 percent of the samples. But it is key to remember that “the dose makes the poison”. The results varied by manufacturer. According to the study author, the concentrations found in the samples are “not very high”, and were “considerably lower than the levels that have been shown to cause lung disease” in workplace environments were exposure is constant. Here is the table of results:

Study Results

Analysis aside, what were the final results of this study? The authors acknowledged that their findings had severe limitations. “We tested only for contamination of samples from cartridges and e-liquids, which may differ from other types of EC products, such as second generation (pens), third-generation (tanks/MODs), and fourth generation (pods) devices.”

They also did not test multiple samples of the same product to test variation between batches. The number of products tested was small as well. It is worth reiterating: “Additional research is needed to confirm our findings and assess potential exposures and health effects in EC users.”