E-Cigarette Use While Pregnant May Increase Risk of Birth Defects, Developmental Problems: Study

Amid continuing concerns about the safety of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, new research suggests that use of the devices by pregnant women may damage the developing brain of the fetus. 

The study was published online by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on March 16, indicating that nicotine exposure during pregnancy and early childhood may have serious health side effects, including impaired fetal brain development and lung development.

Researchers focused on a review of prior studies conducted on humans and animals. The periods of development vulnerability for a human, include during fetal development through adolescent stages of development.

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The study suggests that nicotine from e-cigarettes can also cause altered development to the cerebral cortex and hippocampus as late as adolescence. However, the main take away of the study highlighted the damage nicotine exposure from e-cigarettes, tobacco cigarettes or other sources could do to developing brains in fetuses in the womb, infants and adolescents.

Among pregnant women, the developing fetus is exposed to nicotine from e-cigarettes because the mother’s blood is shared with the fetus.

The risk for teens is slightly different because the appealing quality of the products to teenagers may cause them to become addicted, in turn the nicotine damages the developing brain.

Dr. Tim McAfee, lead author of the study and director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office on Smoking and Health, said it specifically affects the areas of the brain involved in thinking and language development. It also can damage short and long term memory.

“We have to start taking steps, particularly to protect children and teens and pregnant women from the negative health effects of nicotine on the developing brain,” said McAfee

E-cigarettes manufacturers often market e-cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco cigarettes and a way to quit smoking cigarettes, despite concerns regarding health side effects.

Manufacturers cite e-cigarettes as being safe because they release harmless water vapor into the air; however the vapor also contains nicotine. Despite it not being a tobacco cigarette, e-cigarettes can still have secondhand effects on the health of children who may be nearby to inhale it, according to some studies.

Nicotine Health Effects

Most of the studies focused on in the review did not specifically look at e-cigarette use. The majority of the studies focused on effects of nicotine exposure on animals and humans from sources like cigarettes and chewing tobacco, however the nicotine exposure is the same.

Researchers say it is unclear how much nicotine exposure developing fetuses, infants, children and teenagers are receiving from e-cigarettes and what the potential risks may be.

The amount of nicotine released from e-cigarettes varies depending on the kind of e-cigarette brand and the nicotine content of the vaping liquid used. The nicotine dose can range from as little as the equivalent of half a cigarette to as much as a whole cigarette. There are even liquids for e-cigarettes that contain no nicotine at all.

In addition, the amount released often depends on the voltage of the electronic cigarette. Some are even adjustable. A study published in January concluded people who use e-cigarettes at a high voltage may be exposed to even greater amounts of formaldehyde than when using the devices at a lower voltage.

A recent study revealed teens often escape age regulations and buy e-cigarettes online, avoiding age restrictions imposed by state authorities.

The study specifically called for stronger marketing restrictions, especially concerning youth, smoke-free laws similar to tobacco cigarette laws, protections for secondhand exposure, appropriate health warnings on products, and an increase in the age of sale of tobacco products to 21.

The study also advocates for e-cigarettes to be regulated like tobacco cigarettes and for the FDA to finish developing rules to regulate the products like other tobacco products.


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