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A new UCR study published in March of this year indicates that in spite of evolving differences in design aesthetics, fourth generation electronic cigarettes pod atomizers are actually similar to those from previous generations and can leak harmful substances that lead to potentially serious health and environmental issues.

These aforementioned pod atomizers allow the electronic cigarette device to turn the nicotine-filled liquid into a mist when heated. “The atomizers of e-cigarettes contain harmful elements that may leach into e-liquids or transfer to the aerosol upon heating,” explained Esther Omaiye, a graduate student in the Department of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology Department and one of the first authors of the research study.

According to Prue Talbot, professor of cell biology at UCR and leader of the research team, these electronic cigarettes have become increasingly popular in recent years, yet scientists know very little about what elements are actually present in the aerosols. Talbot added that earlier studies do indicate that harmful metals can be released from the atomizer, passed into the aerosol and subsequently, to the human user. “So this was the first step in trying to understand if that same phenomenon exists in the more newly evolved pod style products that are very popular now with adolescents and high school students,” she stated.

Through analyzing the metal substances found in the atomizers using scanning electron microscopy and an energy dispersive X-ray spectrometer, the team was able to identify and map metals in various components of the atomizers in various different electronic cigarette pod products from different manufacturers. 

The team studied 11 fourth generation electronic cigarette pods ranging from six different popular brands. Though several components in the pods were similar, like air tubes and wicks, there were variations in the fluid reservoirs, battery capacity and elemental composition concerning the sample pods. 

They identified 23 different elements in the pods, with the following found in higher amounts: nickel, chromium, iron, gold, copper, zinc, tin, oxygen, silicon, carbon and sodium. Omaiye indicated that some of these substances have been proven to cause “adverse human health effects due to chronic exposure.” They are linked to many human illnesses, such as: cardiovascular diseases, lung injury, cancer, renal damage, immune system suppression and more. She added that another issue has to do with these products being discarded into the environment, likely contributing to chemical pollution in both water and soil.

Within the published study, though they were able to find a connection between potentially harmful substances and fourth generation electronic cigarettes, the team emphasized that this is just the start of discerning the direct detrimental effects that the liquid and aerosol components of electronic cigarettes have on the average user, and further study is required to learn more.