Women switching to e-cigarettes could be harming their unborn babies, new research suggests
Women who switch to e-cigarettes when pregnant may be unwittingly damaging their unborn baby, scientists have warned.
The devices harm learning, memory, co-ordination and behaviour, it is feared. Even fertility may be cut, the world’s leading science conference has heard.
The researchers, who were shocked by their results, said that women who smoke often switch to e-cigarettes when pregnant, in the misguided belief they are safer than tobacco.
Around one in eight British women smokes while pregnant – but the figure rises to one in four in some parts of the country.
Professor Judith Zelikoff, of New York University, said: ‘Women may be turning to these products as an alternative because they think they’re safe. Well, they’re not.’
The professor’s research adds to a growing concern about the safety of electronic cigarettes.
Used by an estimated 2.6million Britons, they vaporise nicotine to provide a smoker’s high without exposure to the tar and other cancerous chemicals found in cigarettes.
Recent studies have linked them to everything from cancer to disabling lung damage.
However, with health officials declaring them safe enough for use in pregnancy and giving the go-ahead to prescribe on them on the NHS, many people believe them to harmless.
Professor Zelikoff compared baby mice exposed to e-cigarette vapour in the womb and shortly after birth with pups whose mothers had breathed in clean air.
Both normal e-cigarettes and nicotine-free varieties were used.
When she looked at the creatures’ brains, she found distinct differences in their genes, with up to 2,630 genes more or less active in the mice that had breathed in e-cigarette fumes.
Females were more affected than males and nicotine-free e-cigarettes caused the biggest changes, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference heard.
Professor Zelikoff said: ‘We were shocked. But what people don’t realise is that even without nicotine there are many things that are given off when you heat up and vaporise these products.’
She then applied knowledge from previous studies to try to find out what the changes might mean.
Problems with learning, memory, co-ordination and hyperactivity are all possible, she said.
Using e-cigarettes can even cut fertility, adding to a growing concern about the safety of electronic cigarettes
In another experiment, the professor linked e-cigarette exposure in the womb to cuts in male fertility.
Pups who breathed in the vapour made half as much sperm as normal and those they did make struggled to swim.
The professor said: ‘We were very surprised. We didn’t expect to see such a dramatic effect.’
Describing her results as ‘ground-breaking’, the researcher said that the safety of e-cigarettes has been under-researched.
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Study of tissue from the inside of the nose between smokers and non-smokers, including users of electronic cigarettes.
Their samples showed the biggest changes with several genes key to fighting off infections suppressed.
It is thought the flavourings added to e-cigarettes may be behind the additional changes, with cinnamaldehyde, the chemical that makes an e-cigarette taste like cinnamon, shown to damage cells in a dish.
Researcher Ilona Jaspers, of the University of North Carolina, in the US, said while such flavourings may have been judged safe to eat, they may be harmful when inhaled.
She told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference: ‘The digestive systems and respiratory systems are very different.
‘Our stomachs are full of acids and enzymes that break down food and deal with chemicals; this environment is very different than our respiratory systems.
‘We simply don’t know what effects e-cigarettes have on our lungs.’
Professor Zelikoff said: ‘We have to make people more aware of the risks. The major point is that these e-cigarettes need more safety testing.
‘The perception is that e-cigarettes are completely safe for pregnant women and vulnerable groups like infants, but we can’t say that.
‘Are they safer than cigarettes? The answer’s not there but they don’t appear to be.
‘One has to assume that these products are not safe for this particular population. Our studies should give pause to people who are pregnant and using these products as an alternative.
‘Our findings should open people’s eyes by showing that this is something that potentially can be harmful if used during pregnancy.
‘It should lead to much more research – this is just the beginning.”
‘This is not just a product that’s cool to use and is not going to have health effects.’
Her co-researcher Dana Lauterstein said: ‘Most people do view e-cigarettes as a safe way to smoke.
‘For women who are pregnant, this could be dangerous. They could be unwittingly endangering their child.”
Last year, Public Health England said at least 76,000 lives could be saved annually if smokers went electronic.
But it later emerged that the claim relied on a study partially conducted by scientists with links to the e-cigarette industry.
There is also concern that ‘vaping’ makes smoking appear glamorous to the young – and that once hooked on nicotine, they will move on to conventional cigarettes.
The chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has warned they may make smoking seem normal again.
The devices harm learning, memory, co-ordination and behaviour, experts at the world’s leading science conference said
The devices are banned from some public areas, including railways stations, and have caused bomb alerts on buses, leading to motorway closures.
Professor Adam Balen, chairman of the British Fertility Society, said: ‘Whilst e-cigarettes may help some people to stop smoking real cigarettes, one cannot escape the reality that various chemicals are still being inhaled that have potentially harmful effects both to health, fertility and also the non-consenting participant, the baby.
We have to make people more aware of the risks. The major point is that these e-cigarettes need more safety testing
Professor Judith Zelikoff, New York University
‘It may therefore be wrong to switch during pregnancy and best to avoid all kinds of smoking.’
Dr Patrick O’Brien, of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: ‘E-cigarettes are becoming a popular alternative to tobacco smoking, but at the moment what is in them is not controlled and some have been found to contain harmful substances as well as nicotine, as this study in mice demonstrates.
‘As the long-term risks for the developing baby from using them are not known, we do not recommend women use these products in pregnancy.’
Tom Pruen, of the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association, said that while e-cigarettes ideally shouldn’t be used during pregnancy, using them is likely to be better than smoking.
The drug safety watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, said hopes to clear more e-cigarettes as being safe enough and effective enough for use on the NHS.