Paddy Gower On Vaping: Shocking facts uncovered about the known and unknown health risks of e-liquids

  • 02/08/2023

New Zealand Government scientists have discovered shocking contents in vape juice being sold around the country including alcohol, copper and suspected human saliva.

In his latest documentary Paddy Gower On Vaping, Gower visited the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), which has been running a study for the last two years on the safety of e-liquids. 

"We found products that don't match what they say on their label. A product with a [label saying it has] six milligrams [of nicotine] may have 12, for example," said Jared Doncliff, ESR's pharmaceuticals programme leader.

"We've also found products that are labelled as zero nicotine, but we've found nicotine in them.

"The other thing we have found with some of the products is we've detected microorganisms. Some of the organisms we've detected are associated with saliva - even though these are from products that claim to be made in a clean room."

"That's disgusting," said Gower.

"Yes it is," agreed Dr Doncliff.

The scientists have also found up to 20 percent ethanol - alcohol - in most vape juice products tested. 

In Aotearoa, a vape liquid doesn't have to be tested before it is sold, its manufacturers or importers simply have to tell the Ministry of Health the consumable product adheres with current regulations. 

In 2020 the Government brought in a raft of regulations to try and clean up the industry which Doncliff said has helped, but there is still work to be done.

"Certainly before the regulation, I would've said yes, it's the Wild West. After the regulation, we are seeing some changes in compliance, such as most products now having expiry dates. They didn't before," he told Gower.

"Most of them also now have batch numbers. It's been sort of reigning in the Wild West, but it's a work in progress."

Screengrab from Paddy Gower On Vaping of propylene glycol being added to the vape juice in Lion Labs factory.
Manufacturers of propylene glycol and chemical safety agencies recommend you avoid inhaling it - yet it makes up around half of what is sold as vape liquid. Photo credit: Paddy Gower On Vaping

Vape juice generally has four sets of ingredients: food flavourings, vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol and nicotine.

Manufacturers of propylene glycol and chemical safety agencies recommend you avoid inhaling it yet propylene glycol makes up around half of the vape liquid.

Nicotine is of course one of the most addictive substances known to humankind.

But even the less dangerous ingredients have experts worried.

"We found each different e-liquid had about 40 different flavouring chemicals in there," Dr Kelly Burrowes, an associate professor at the University of Auckland's Bioengineering Institute, told Gower.

"One of the tricky things is understanding the health effects of all of these e-liquids - there's known to be about 15,000 different flavours - they've all got different chemicals in them as they're all different flavours.

"No one knows what those flavourings are going to do to people's lungs or bodies.

"These flavourings are used in food already, so they're generally thought to be safe - but that's for eating them. No one has tested what they do when you inhale them."

In Dr Burrowes' tests, heavy metals have been found in vape juice, including manganese, copper and chromium.

Some of them were found at 100 times more than the limit allowed in drinking water.

For the purposes of the documentary, Gower vaped in the presence of Dr Burrowes, who ran tests including an MRI to measure the effects on his body.

Just three puffs on a vape was enough to make his blood flow increase by about 14 percent to his lungs.

That result was consistent with the same experiment Dr Burrowes has been running on 20 people who are regular vapers.

"What we found was that the blood flow mostly went up in these participants, which is thought to be because of the nicotine. We found that people using higher concentrations of nicotine had a greater increase in blood flow," she said.

"Other studies have been looking at similar things. They find that your blood pressure goes up in different parts of your body, your heart rate increases and your blood flow goes up. 

"So this is probably okay if it happens every now and then. But if you're doing it 20 times a day, your blood vessels will start to remodel - they will potentially get stiffer and that can then lead to increased risk of heart disease and stroke."

In New Zealand, 20 percent of people aged 14 and 15 vape regularly. Schools around the country are dealing with what has been labelled a 'vaping epidemic'. 

Māori youth are twice as likely to vape compared to non-Māori.

Takurua from Kawerau is one of New Zealand's many teen vape addicts.
Takurua from Kawerau - a teen vape addict. Photo credit: Paddy Gower On Vaping

Stanford University's Dr Robert Jackler has testified in US Congress that vape brand JUUL intentionally targeted young people with its social media influencer-driven advertising.

"I think that decades of gradual gain in reigning in the tobacco industry and reducing nicotine addiction amongst teens have already started reversing because of the upswell of emerging nicotine delivery products," Dr Jackler told Gower.

"Initially, it was small startups. Hundreds of little companies making vaping devices.

"Now it's the big boys (tobacco industry giants) because cigarette sales are going down, they're looking for other ways to sustain their profitability. And they're succeeding at it."

What can be a useful tool to stop people smoking tobacco is now being used by young kids who never smoked in the first place 

In the documentary, Gower met with Takurua from Kawerau, who was 13 when he started vaping. 

"Last year I used to do it in class. When they leave the class, my teachers," said Takurua.

He said his cousin got him into vaping, but that using vapes is "normal" for his age group and he estimates he knows "hundreds" of other children who do it.

Takurua wants to quit but he is addicted to the nicotine in his vape and we still don't have a full understanding of the harm it is causing kids like him long-term. 

It's a giant global experiment we will only know the results of in a few decades. 

Watch the full documentary Paddy Gower on Vaping on ThreeNow