E-Cigarette Lung Injury Tied to Vape Device Component

Nickel-chromium heating elements may play a part in vaping lung injuries
Alert: Vaping has been associated with a higher risk of contracting COVID-19

A recent e-cigarette vaping study uncovered a surprise. The study set out to investigate the health impacts of e-cigarettes and vaping products. In the middle of the study, researchers switched vape devices.

Prior to the switch, subjects had not come down with any serious illnesses. After the switch, cases of severe lung injury (EVALI) began appearing. The only discernible differences between the two devices? The heating element and the power settings.

EVALI stands for E-cigarette or Vaping Associated Lung Injury. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing

E-Cigarette Heating Element May Cause Lung Injury

Researchers at the University of California Irvine (UCI) began the study in 2018. They initially used a vaping device with a stainless steel heating element. But in September 2019, the device was discontinued, forcing researchers to replace it. The replacement vaping device used a nickel-chromium alloy (NC) heating element.

In the first year or so of the study, researchers did not observe severe lung problems. But, subjects experienced severe respiratory distress within one hour of switching devices. Study authors believe these EVALI cases may be attributed to the heating element material. Researchers felt this information was so important, the public needed to know immediately.

We felt it imperative to release the initial findings early so that electronic cigarette users could be cautioned sooner, especially considering e-cigarette users are at increased risk of COVID-19.

Robert Kloner, M.D. Ph.D.University of California Irvine

Temperature May Also Be a Factor

In addition to using a different material, the replacement vape device operated at a higher power level. Researchers believe this may have also played a role in the lung injuries they witnessed.

This parallels information from another vaping study published in October 2020. The study was completed by Jeff Wagner and other employees of the California Department of Public Health. Wagner and colleagues found vape devices more likely to cause harm at higher temperatures.

Lung Injury Risk From Other Types of Vape Devices Still Unknown

Vape devices commonly use heating elements composed of:

  • Kanthal nickel
  • Nickel-chromium or nichrome (NC)
  • Stainless steel
  • Titanium

This study only used devices with either stainless steel or NC heating elements. It is unclear whether other heating element materials could produce the same lung injuries.

Study Did Not Determine a "Safe" E-Cigarette

Based on this data, some consumers may believe a vape device with a stainless steel heating element is safe. But e-cigarette researchers would disagree with that sentiment.

Prior to the advent of EVALI, vaping had already been associated with health problems, including:

  • Seizures and convulsions
  • Nicotine addiction
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Facial injuries (from exploding batteries)

Note: Vaping injuries and illnesses have led many consumers to file e-cigarette lawsuits.

Experts have not yet determined which e-cigarette factors cause such health problems. But they do agree that vaping and e-cigarettes pose serious risks.

"The harms associated with e-cigarettes and vaping simply cannot be overstated," according to UCI's Kloner.

Only time will tell if vaping and e-cigarettes will end up with the same safety status as traditional cigarettes.

Authored by Katy Moncivais, Ph.D.Medical Editor
Photo of Katy Moncivais, Ph.D.
Katy Moncivais holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. She’s an experienced Regenerative Medicine Consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital & healthcare industry. Skilled in adult stem cells, medical devices, biomechanics, bacterial and mammalian cell culture, and regenerative medicine, she provides guidance on an array of topics affecting consumers. In her role at ConsumerSafety.org, Dr. Moncivais works alongside the writing and research staff to help deliver fact-based news stories to consumers. Her unique professional history alongside her rigorous educational background allows her to contribute to a variety of consumer-focused topics with a fresh perspective. In addition, Dr. Moncivais reviews portions of medically driven content to ensure scientific accuracy.
Editorial Standards Full Bio