Are e-cigarettes safer than other tobacco products? Lab tests find vapors contain traces of metals

DENVER - Electronic cigarette use has more than doubled since 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But with no FDA regulation on e-cigarettes, 7NEWS did our own testing to find out how safe or unsafe these vapors really are.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered, smokeless and come in all kinds of flavors like root beer and bubble gum. While users may think e-cigarettes are safer, Dr. Prue Talbot is looking past its novelty, studying what's inside these devices.  

"I would say e-cigarettes are the cigarettes of the 21st century," Dr. Talbot said.

Talbot and her team at the University of California Riverside were among the first in the country to analyze e-cigarettes. Talbot tested two e-cigarette brands, Smoking Everywhere Platinum and Mistic, using a smoking machine and specialized microscope in her lab.

The results of our first test found a potentially dangerous metal in the vapor.

"There is quite a bit of tin, most of this material is composed of tin - there is also some oxygen, some copper and some nickel," Dr. Talbot explained.

The results showed Smoking Everywhere Platinum e-cigarettes contained so much metal in the vapor that it created a metal pellet.

"I think the fact there is significant amount of tin in these pellets is important - this means the people using this product are going to be inhaling the tin," Dr. Talbot told us.

She then explained how inhaling tin directly or second-hand, can be dangerous for users.

"Nanoparticles in general can be toxic, in the case of e-cigarettes, the nanoparticles would tend to go deeper into respiratory system," she added.

Dr. Talbot has tested dozens of e-cigarette brands through her work at the University. She's found each e-cigarette provides a different result, because each brand is manufactured independently.

E-cigarettes are so new to the market that there have been no long term health studies regarding overall safety and whether or not they are any safer than regular cigarettes.

"It's concerning to me for sure," Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Dr. Larry Wolk told us.

Dr. Wolk is one of a dozen public health leaders across the country now urging the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes.

"Because they're not under the purview of the FDA, the claim that these can be used to help you quit smoking is without basis, the claim that these are somehow safer for you is without basis," he explained.

Dr. Wolk says FDA regulation is needed in order to send a clear message to consumers about what's inside these vapors and the potential health risks associated with e-cigarettes.

"Manufacturers of these do not have to disclose, really, what's inside?" Investigative Reporter Amanda Kost asked.

"There's no disclosure requirement without the FDA authority," Dr. Wolk said. "I believe that this is a loophole, that the manufacturers stumbled upon to or found purposely, so I have to be optimistic and hope that the FDA will catch up to this now and say yes this is a nicotine, tobacco like product that does need to be regulated."

Smoking Everywhere is made in China. We contacted its U.S. Distributor, based in Florida, and have yet received a response. Mistic is also made in China, with offices in California. A spokesperson said they're reviewing the research before issuing a response.