Teen Researcher Asks: Why Do E-Cigs Harm the Lungs?

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Natalia Orlovsky portrait

Photo courtesy of Natalia Orlovsky.

Update (January 2020): Government Regulation of E-cigarettes 

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established a rule for e-cigarettes and their liquid solutions. Because e-cigarettes contain nicotine derived from tobacco, they are now subject to government regulation as tobacco products. In December 2019, the federal government raised the legal minimum age of sale of tobacco products from 18 to 21 years, and in January 2020, the FDA issued a policy on the sale of flavored vaping cartridges. 

Update (November 2019): Reports of Deaths Related to Vaping

The FDA has alerted the public to thousands of reports of serious lung illnesses associated with vaping, including dozens of deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted an information page for consumers.

For the latest information (as of April 2020), read this blog post.

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Using vaping products like JUUL (also called e-cigarettes) can harm a person’s lungs, and a teen researcher wanted to find out exactly why that happens. The researcher, Natalia Orlovsky, made an important discovery—and won second place for her study in a national “science talent search.”

Natalia, who describes herself as an “everything nerd,” became interested in studying e-cigarettes when she noticed that they were becoming more popular. She was also inspired by a friend’s research on the dangers of e-cig flavoring.

Stressing the lungs

Natalia studied human lung cells in lab dishes to learn the effects of e-cig vapor that gets inhaled into the lungs. She found that the vapor switched on a cell “stress pathway” that’s also switched on by dangerous chemicals that are formed when coal, oil, gas, tobacco, or garbage are partially burned. (Pretty gross, right?)

Interestingly, she found the same result in e-cigs that don’t contain nicotine as in e-cigs with nicotine.

Next, she hopes to study how vaping affects other cell pathways in the lungs, and any other effects of chemicals that a person consumes when they vape.

Tips for teen scientists

With this study and her national prize, Natalia is already making her mark as a scientist. We asked her if she has advice for other teens interested in doing scientific research. She answered, “Start small! See what kinds of experiments you can perform at your own high school.”

She continued, “If your school doesn’t have the tools you need (for example, mine didn’t), there are lots of free summer research opportunities out there. Apply to as many as you can. Most importantly, remember to have fun with your work and to tackle questions that you find exciting!”

Natalia participated in an education program for high school students called the Teen Research and Education in Environmental Science (TREES) summer program. Her second-place award included a whopping prize of $175,000. Congratulations to Natalia—and to all the teen researchers who are making discoveries that could help people live healthier lives.

Learn more: How many teens say they vape because they’re “hooked”?

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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