Review of Health Consequences of Electronic Cigarettes and the Outbreak of Electronic Cigarette, or Vaping, Product Use-Associated Lung Injury

Dazhe James Cao, Kim Aldy, Stephanie Hsu, Molly McGetrick, Guido Verbeck, Imesha De Silva, Sing yi Feng

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are battery-operated devices to insufflate nicotine or other psychoactive e-liquid aerosols. Despite initial claims of e-cigarettes as a nicotine-cessation device, aggressive marketing of e-cigarettes has led to an explosion in adolescents’ and young adults’ use over the last few years. Coupled with a lack of adequate investigation and regulation of e-cigarettes, the USA is facing an outbreak of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) starting in mid-2019. While little long-term health hazard data are available, the components and constituents of e-cigarettes may adversely impact health. Propylene glycol and glycerin are humectants (water-retaining excipients) that generate pulmonary irritants and carcinogenic carbonyl compounds (e.g., formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acrolein) when heated in e-cigarettes. Metals contained in heating coils and cartridge casings may leach metals such as aluminum, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, nickel, and tin. Flavoring agents are considered safe for ingestion but lack safety data for inhalational exposures. Diacetyl, a common buttery flavoring agent, has known pulmonary toxicity with inhalational exposures leading to bronchiolitis obliterans. In 2019, clusters of lung injury associated with e-cigarette use were identified in Wisconsin and Illinois. Patients with EVALI present with a constellation of respiratory, gastrointestinal, and constitutional symptoms. Radiographically, patients have bilateral ground glass opacifications. As of February 18, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control has identified 2807 hospitalized patients diagnosed with either “confirmed” or “probable” EVALI in the US. Currently, vitamin E acetate (VEA) used as a diluent in tetrahydrocannabinol vape cartridges is implicated in EVALI. VEA cuts tetrahydrocannabinol oil without changing the appearance or viscosity. When inhaled, pulmonary tissue lacks the mechanism to metabolize and absorb VEA, which may lead to its accumulation. While most EVALI patients were hospitalized, treatment remains largely supportive, and use of corticosteroids has been associated with clinical improvement. The outbreak of EVALI highlights the need for regulation of e-cigarette devices and e-liquids. Clinicians need to be aware of the health hazards of e-cigarettes and be vigilant in asking about vaping.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)295-310
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Medical Toxicology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1 2020


  • Electronic cigarettes
  • Lung injury
  • Nicotine
  • Tetrahydrocannabinol
  • Vaping

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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