Formaldehyde Found in Electronic Cigarettes? E-Cigs, Science, Regulation, and Me (Updated)

Time for yet another confession.

I’m a nicotine addict. Unfortunately I’m not kidding. It first started when I was 15, but I did give it up (for a time), when I discovered that my mom was allergic. However, I was smoking a large amount of cigarettes at the time. And I started up again, much more recently. Back in November 2013, to be a little more precise. It was because of Burger King (and I’ve no doubt you can guess why). And I immediately fell in to two packs a day, which increased to three packs before some friends showed me an alternative.

And that alternative was electronic cigarettes.

This was a different, interesting world I had heard of in the past but not ventured in to. The offer was interesting…

Enjoy that nicotine you crave without the harmful carcinogens and poisons present in those cigarettes, and without the immediate harm to your throat of dry smoke. It helped that my preferred method of marijuana ingestion was vaping, because I didn’t like dry smoke. But I did like my nicotine, especially when I didn’t have access to THC, and vaping nicotine was not something I had been really privy to by that point except for the commercials which I rarely, if ever, paid attention to anyways.

But then, one day, Groupon sent me a deal on an Atmos RX (looks like they no longer sell what I got) with an included liquid tank adapter and some juice, and I went for it. Then, not long after that, Burger King hired a new cook, who also ended up working for a place called VaporShark. And I got my hands on one of the original DNAs (that’s… not the one that I have, which is much older) through them, along with my first RDA (Rebuildable Drip Atomizer), a Stillare clone.

When I started using it, I also met someone else, who often came through the drive-thru during overnights (and also became a friend). He talked up this place called Boca Vapes, where he worked (and still works). I finally made my way there, and transitioned from variable voltage mods to mechanical mods. Over a period of a few months, I ended up first with a Nemesis clone, then a Maraxus clone, and then, finally, an authentic Raijin. And with these I got myself a Vulcan RDA, a UD Igo-W Plus, and, most recently (the end of December 2014, in fact), a Kanger SubTank. I have a Project Sub-Ohm Edition Infinite CLT RDA V3 coming in.

Now, the idea behind electronic cigarettes is to help people quit analog cigarettes. Some say they work as a total cessation device. My experience has been absolutely true for the former, and a work-in-progress for the latter.

What I mean with that latter statement is that when I first started vaping, I was using juice that contained 24 milligrams of nicotine per milliliter of juice. Now here’s the thing about RDAs. Although I’m still not 100% sure why (I haven’t studied deep enough into the maths or mechanics), what happens when you drip directly on coils and cotton, and then heat that and inhale the resulting vapor, is the amount of nicotine you inhale is doubled. So, my juice was 24 nic (24 mg/ml), but I would inhale in one minute-long vaping session up to 48 milligrams of nicotine per milliliter of e-juice. And this was heavy. But it was what I needed at first.

However, it didn’t take long to start decreasing my nicotine intake, and now I get my juices with 4 milligrams of nicotine per milliliter of juice. So yeah, I’ve managed to drastically reduce my nicotine intake. However, I stagnated at 4nic due to how often I was vaping. I was vaping constantly. I almost didn’t stop at all. My room in Florida almost looked like a sauna because of how foggy it was. However, now I’m in a situation where I simply cannot vape anywhere near that often. And as a result, I’ve already noticed that my tolerance levels for 4nic are dropping off. If this continues, I’ll need to decrease my nicotine levels again. And, hopefully, end up vaping juice with no nicotine at all.

But we’ve finished one whole page and I haven’t actually talked about the title. All of that was simply to express that I am connected to this as a user of electronic cigarettes.

And so…

Recently, a study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine called “Hidden Formaldehyde in E-Cigarette Aerosols”.

E-cigarette liquids are typically solutions of propylene glycol, glycerol, or both, plus nicotine and flavorant chemicals. We have observed that formaldehyde-containing hemiacetals, shown by others to be entities that are detectable by means of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy,1 can be formed during the e-cigarette “vaping” process. Formaldehyde is a known degradation product of propylene glycol that reacts with propylene glycol and glycerol during vaporization to produce hemiacetals (Figure 1). These molecules are known formaldehyde-releasing agents that are used as industrial biocides.5 In many samples of the particulate matter (i.e., the aerosol) in “vaped” e-cigarettes, more than 2% of the total solvent molecules have converted to formaldehyde-releasing agents, reaching concentrations higher than concentrations of nicotine. This happens when propylene glycol and glycerol are heated in the presence of oxygen to temperatures reached by commercially available e-cigarettes operating at high voltage. How formaldehyde-releasing agents behave in the respiratory tract is unknown, but formaldehyde is an International Agency for Research on Cancer group 1 carcinogen.4

That sounds pretty terrifying, right? Of course it does. The continuing quest to show that electronic cigarettes are actually healthier than analog tobacco cigarettes seems to have hit a roadblock. And this is a not insignificant roadblock. Formaldehyde is indeed a pretty potent carcinogen, and the chances of you getting cancer from formaldehyde are not low, which is why, as they say, it is an IARC Group 1 carcinogen. So this seems pretty bad…

Except for one tiny little problem. Specifically, one tiny little omission.

Go read the full article. Notice anything?


Here… let’s let Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos explain

The authors fail to realize that voltage levels provide no information about the thermal load of an e-cigarette device. It seems that both the researchers and the reviewers who approved the study for publication missed that energy should be expressed in watts. As a result, we do not know how many watts were applied to the atomizer.

Yup. And here’s the thing about vaping. There’s a point in vaping known as a “dry-puff phenomenon”. This is basically what happens when the wattage output of a vaping device is so high that it burns the cotton and vaporizes the e-juice too quickly. And yes, this will indeed produce formaldehyde.

Trust me… the taste is rather unpleasant. I didn’t get into vaping to smoke cotton, or any other wicking. I got into vaping to find a better method of getting nicotine than dry smoke.

There is a sweet spot in wattage that you want to hit to avoid this phenomenon. Here’s a handy chart so you can see that sweet spot directly:


And actually, it’s not hard to hit. At all. In fact, as you can see, that sweet spot is pretty wide. It’s even easier to hit if you have a variable voltage/wattage mod, which is what the researchers were testing on.

So just what was the wattage the researchers tested at? The problem, as you’ve already read, is that they don’t tell us. However, they do give us enough information to figure it out. But I’m not a maths person (and yes, I did indeed spell it “maths”… becoming an obsessive Whovian will do that to you), so I’ll let Dr. Farsalinos tell you:

The authors report that 5mg of liquid were consumed at 3.3 volts. Based on measurements I have performed, such consumption is observed at about 6-7 watts at 4-second puffs. Thus, the atomizer resistance is probably 1.6-1.8 Ohms. This means that at 5 volts the energy was around 14-16watts. That would be an extremely high value for most commercially-available atomizers (excluding some rebuildables which can withstand such high wattage levels). Thus, it is more than obvious that once again the atomizer was overheated, which of course will result in very high levels of formaldehyde production. What the authors ignore is that these conditions, commonly called dry-puff phenomenon (which is explained in detail in one of my published studies), are easily detected by the vapers. In fact, overheating results in an unpleasant taste that none can withstand. As a result, no vaper is ever using the e-cigarette at such conditions and, thus, will never be exposed to such levels of formaldehyde. The story published in New England Journal of Medicine is similar to finding carcinogens in an overcooked piece of meat that none can ever eat. Of course the findings are true, but none will be exposed to the levels found.

So basically, the tests were done at a level that basically every vaper who’s vaped once will consciously seek to avoid, because every vaper hits the dry-puff on their first time. It happens. It’s how you learn what to avoid. And as such, every single vaper will only ever be exposed to this point once, and rarely, if ever, again.

Oh… and those “rebuildables which can withstand such high wattage levels”? The purpose of these is cloud chasing. What does that mean? It means attempting to blow the biggest clouds you can blow in competitions. I participated in two such competitions at Boca Vapes back in Florida, and while I didn’t win either of them, I did watch one person win $1000 cash, given to him in 10 $100 bills (all US currency, of course). And because these rebuildables are made to withstand such high wattage levels, you won’t get the burning, which means no formaldehyde at those higher wattage levels.

So basically, the “study” is a bust. Because of that one omission (though there were others; please read Dr. Farsalinos’s entire article), the entire study is a failure. How it got approved is a complete mystery.

Update! Update! Turns out, Dr. Farsalinos was pretty accurate. Read this:

According to the Reddit post and author’s email, the atomizer had a resistance of 2.1 Ohms. This means that at 3.3 volts, the energy delivery was about 5.5 watts and at 5 volts it was 12 watts. It is more than obvious that the findings of very high levels of formaldehyde are a result of overheating. Lack of experience on e-cigarettes and no contact with vapers can result in such erroneous and unrealistic results, which can create confusion and misinformation both in the scientific community and among users and potential users of e-cigarettes. Finally, it is extremely important that every study evaluating vapor chemistry from e-cigarettes should mention in detail the equipment used.

Check on that chart up above. 12 watts is still way into the red zone. If you needed even more evidence that the study is crap…

So now you’re probably wondering…

But Nathan. These electronic cigarettes? They are an unknown in our world right now. The science just isn’t in. You mean you don’t even want them regulated?

Um… have you forgotten that I’m a Socialist? Have you forgotten that I’m actually a big fan of regulation? Actually… I’ve gotten into arguments with other vapers over this, but in fact, yes. I do want them regulated. Very much so.

I want the ingredients used in e-juice to be strictly controlled. E-juice should contain two to four main ingredients: propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, natural (or, if artificial is to be allowed, then safe artificial) flavoring, and nicotine (or THC, depending on the laws of your particular state). This should be regulated because manufacturers shouldn’t be allowed to put in other perhaps more addicting chemicals, just like they do in analog tobacco cigarettes. And I want people to be able to make their own juices, as well, so regulations on the chemicals they’re able to purchase for it should be in place.

I want age limits enforced. The smoking age is 18 for a reason. The vaping age should be the same.

I want public vaping to be regulated, too. Why? Because I believe that you have the right to do whatever you want as long as you do not violate the rights of others to do whatever they want. I shouldn’t have to repeat that last part. You’re average selfish libertarian tends to ignore that second half other than to pay it lip-service, but in fact it actually means that navigating who has what rights at what time and whose rights apply more to a specific situation is very complicated. And if the general public doesn’t want you vaping in their faces, what right do you have to do so anyways? If the US wants to regulate where you can vape just like they regulate where you can smoke, as long as every single state allows vaping to occur at vape lounges (just like smoking is allowed at cigar lounges and hookahs are allowed at hookah lounges), then I’m all for this.

Mechanical mods and other such advanced e-cig devices should be regulated above and beyond the basic regulations, too. I actually wouldn’t mind a 21 age limit on electronically unregulated devices like my Nemesis, Maraxus, and Raijin. I wouldn’t mind specific IDs and permissions being implemented to ensure that lounges comply with safety rules and regulations, including regular inspections. Hell… I wouldn’t mind lounges having to offer classes to wannabe users of these mechanical/unregulated devices, and they have to pass those classes and get an ID proving it just in order to purchase these devices. And while I’d be fine with allowing users like me who started before these regulations get put into place being partially grandfathered in, it shouldn’t happen without us taking a test (the same test people taking the classes would have to pass) to prove we actually know what we’re doing, and we have to pass that test to get grandfathered in. And yes, if you fail it, you lose the mechanical mod(s) you have until you pass (you’d get two more chances, and if you fail both of those, you have to take the class). Though I doubt most advanced mechanical mod users would fail the test (and it should NOT be designed for failure).

(For the record, I actually have an idea of what those classes could look like, including what the required text should look like and what the test should look like and how it should be administered. But I’ll save that for another blog post.)

The reason I don’t mind mech mods being handled in this very strict way is because if you’re not careful, these devices are capable of shorting out and becoming mini pipe bombs.


Relax. Those aren’t my hands. This hasn’t happened to me, and I’ve been tutored by more than one person at Boca Vapes and on the Electronic Cigarette forums to know how to avoid this, even without a safety fuse.

Oh… and here’s what that hand looked like before the bandages were put on.

He didn’t show us what the area around his mouth looked like. It was either unharmed, or the unbandaged hand was enough to get the point across, and we don’t want to see his face.

You wouldn’t want that to happen to you, or anybody else… right?

But don’t let this scare you. I use these devices myself and I’m pretty confident in my own safety. I have all the required equipment needed to test the ohms of my builds and the voltage drop on my mods and the batteries themselves. I know, intimately, what each one of my nine batteries can handle, and I know how far I can push them before I have to stop. I’m becoming more and more knowledgeable of Ohm’s Law, and Steam Engine has become one of my best friends. I know how to detect a short before it becomes dangerous (in fact, the e-cig forums helped me discover an RDA-killing short in my Stillare, and now it’s unusable… figuring that out the hard way would have indeed resulted in my hand looking like the one above, and whichever mod I used it on being utterly destroyed… so glad I have an ohm reader to test for this), and I can taste a dry hit coming long before it actually happens (thank you, Japanese organic cotton!).

And you know what’s weird about all that knowledge I have? I’m still, technically, a noob to this. I’m not even close to being an expert in this, yet. Personally, I’d actually want to take those classes. It’s surprisingly a lot easier to learn how to use these devices safely than I expected at the start… and I mean a lot easier.

And further, they offer an item, specifically known as a safe fuse, that’s designed to short out in case of a hard short in the RDA. So, place that at the negative end of your battery, and in case of a hard short, instead of your mechanical mod becoming a pipe bomb, the fuse itself shorts out, leaving you safe and unharmed, and your mod just rather hot.

With that said, this is why I’m all in favor of regulation. I think regulation, if done right, is a good thing. So actually, I very much support regulating the electronic cigarette industry… whole-heartedly. The only limits on those regulations I’d want to see are limits that ensure the regulations don’t make it impossible for small/family-owned vape lounges and shops to navigate them. I like the small, family-owned nature of the industry as it stands now, and I want it to stay that way.

And further, I’m following the science closely. Why? Because I think the electronic cigarette is a wonder and a marvel, and it is indeed helping me. But I’m also a skeptic, and at the end of the day, all the anecdotes in the world don’t trump science.

But that doesn’t mean bad science won’t get published, and that “study” published in the New England Journal of Medicine?

Well that’s just terrible science.

About Nathan Hevenstone

I'm an SJW, Socialist, Jewish Agnostic Atheist, Foodie, and Guitarist. Hi!
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6 Responses to Formaldehyde Found in Electronic Cigarettes? E-Cigs, Science, Regulation, and Me (Updated)

  1. B-Rad Vaper says:

    Interseting article, well written and your story will ring true for alot of former smokers, myself included. Looks like I am way behind here (story published 2 1/2 years ago), but I enjoy reading the positive vape stories. I also agree that regulations should be in place around vaping, maybe not the crazy stuff proposed by the FDA at the moment, but your points are valid.
    I currently have three different “vapes” in front of me, a tootle puffer; a modwomper and a cloud chaser (I didn’t make these terms up). I am a vape hobbyiest and only like to rebuild my coils…. Anyways, just wanted to throw you some Kudos! Vape on:)

  2. Rob says:

    most mech mods are burning at about 28 watts.. What does that mean for the formaldehyde production? current setup i have is a .13 ohm build, battery is 4.2v, 35amp

    • Actually, that really depends on your battery. And most RDAs are actually built to handle the higher wattages.

    • Hello again! You really should start getting familiar with Steam Engine (

      I used it to calculate your power and amperage.

      If your build 0.13 ohms, and your battery is 4.2v, you’re pushing 32.31 amps with 135.69 watts of power.

      Now, since you’re on a mech device, I’m guessing you’re using a rebuildable atomizer. These are designed to handle the higher wattage, so in terms of formaldehyde production you should actually be fine, but I can’t say for sure.

      However, please please please either build higher resistances (I won’t go below 0.2 ohms, myself) or get a safety fuse. While you are technically below the amp limits of your batteries, you need to keep in mind that there’s some level of estimation with those amps and it’s better to err on the side of caution. Even at 0.2 ohms I have to be careful, and I’m well within my batteries’ safety limits.

  3. Ah! Thanks! I’m trying to encourage my Mr Crazypants to vape, I was a bit taken aback about the formaldehyde…thanks for the heads-up.

    • No problem. I always look in to stuff like that. It really could have been a bad discovery, but they made the mistake of leaving out the watts, which would have shown the irrelevance of the discovery.

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