Warning on Dangerous Chemicals in Illegal Vapes

A BBC investigation has shown high levels of dangerous chemicals including lead and nickel in illegal vapes confiscated in schools. Vapes collected in Baxter College in Kidderminster were tested by an independent laboratory which showed them to have more than twice the allowed levels of lead, and nine times the amount of nickel.

While vaping is regarded as a safer alternative to smoking tobacco, authorities worldwide are beginning to worry that the appeal of vaping to children means that they are being exposed to chemicals in unknown quantities. While the chemical composition of vapes, or e-cigarettes, is supposedly controlled, there is a thriving market in illegal vapes, many of them flavoured and packaged to appeal to children as young as 12 or 13. Some vapes also contain high levels of nicotine as found in cigarettes.

Exposure to chemicals such as lead can affect the development of children’s nervous systems, says the World Health Organisation.

In the BBC’s investigation, the Inter Scientific laboratory, in Liverpool, which works with vape manufacturers to ensure regulatory standards are met, analysed 18 vapes, finding that most were illegal and had not gone through any kind of testing before being sold in the UK.


Lab co-founder David Lawson said: “In 15 years of testing, I have never seen lead in a device. None of these should be on the market – they break all the rules on permitted levels of metal. They are the worst set of results I’ve ever seen.”

Of particular concern were “highlighter vapes”, designed with bright colours to look like highlighter pens, where the amounts of the metals found were:

  • Lead – 12 micrograms per gram, 2.4 times the stipulated safe exposure level
  • Nickel – 9.6 times safe levels
  • Chromium – 6.6 times safe levels

The metals are though to come both from the heating element in the vapes, and also from the =e-liquid itself. The lab tests also found compounds called carbonyls, which break down into chemicals such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde when the e-liquid is heated, at 10 times the level in legal vapes, soe with levels higher than are found in cigarettes.

The Medicine and Health Care Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) theoretically sets regulations for manufacturers on vape ingredients, packaging and marketing, and registers e-cigarettes and e-liquids. But the MHRA does not check claims made by manufacturers, and has no power to investigate unregistered products. Trading Standards agencies, which would theoretically investigate unregistered products or cases when sales are made to underage customers, say they do not have the manpower to handle the number of cases. It is illegal to sell vapes to under-18s, but a YouGov survey in March and April for Action on Smoking and Health suggests a rise in experimental vaping among 11- to 17-year-olds, from 7.7%, last year, to 11.6%.

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