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Frogs should not vape?

Frogs shouldn’t vape

If you like vaping (and, I suppose, if you like frogs) the latest so-called research from Virginia Commonwealth University is going to leave you hopping mad. Even by the low standards of public health science this one really is shockingly bad – and the way it’s been done suggests that the aim is not to do science, but just to create negative publicity.

So what exactly has happened? It seems to have started off with the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. According to the press release Virginia Commonwealth released, the institute has been handing out grants for researchers to “look into the potential health impacts of e-cigarettes on parts of the head, face and oral cavity.”

You can look at this as sensible research into possible issues with a new technology, but it’s also possible to see it as fishing for scandals, and as we’ll see that might be closer to the truth. In any case, whatever the Institute wanted the researchers seem to have had an agenda of their own:

“VCU researchers aim to educate the public about the dangers of e-cigarettes and produce results that would compel tighter government regulation.”

The first thing to note here is that this is not scientific research; it’s activism. You can argue about whether or not it’s justified activism – obviously, I think it isn’t – but it certainly isn’t science. The aim of scientific research is not to “produce results” that support a particular government policy. It’s to answer questions by testing a hypothesis, whereas lead VCU researcher René Olivares-Navarette complained, “We’re not going to be able to stop everyone from using e-cigarettes.”

He’s certainly had a damn good shot though. The team decided to look for potential dangers caused by vaping while pregnant. Or, to quote researcher Amanda Dickinson,

“There’s no real study showing why vaping during pregnancy isn’t safe, or when it’s most dangerous during development.”

Science or fiction?

At this point the story loses any remaining contact with science. A real scientist would have said, “There’s no real study investigating whether or not vaping during pregnancy is safe.” And, of course, there still isn’t, because this team don’t seem to have been interested in conducting one. Instead they just decided that vaping during pregnancy isn’t safe, and set out to prove it by any means necessary.

Obviously this posed some problems, because there’s nothing to even suggest that vaping during pregnancy might be unsafe. Smoking during pregnancy is, of course, and the team made sure to stress that vapers and smokers are exposed to many of the same chemicals. What they weren’t so keen to mention was that the quantities are far lower, and that there’s one chemical found in cigarette smoke that vapers aren’t exposed to at all.

That chemical is carbon monoxide, and for all the alarmism about benzene, cyanide and nitrosamines it’s by far the most dangerous component of smoke. Carbon monoxide binds to the hemoglobin in our blood that normally carries oxygen, but it binds a lot more firmly. If you inhale carbon monoxide your blood’s ability to carry oxygen is steadily reduced. The effects can last for hours, and because it mimics oxygen you don’t even realize that you’re being slowly asphyxiated.

A large dose of carbon monoxide is rapidly lethal, but you won’t get anywhere near that dose from a cigarette. Instead, a couple of hundred times a day, you get small doses. Your blood can’t carry as much oxygen, your heart has to pump harder and your whole circulatory system gets put under constant stress. That’s why smokers are more prone to heart disease. And, if you’re pregnant, that stress is applied to your baby too. This – not nicotine– is the real reason smoking when pregnant is harmful.

But e-cigarette vapor doesn’t contain any carbon monoxide at all, so making it look harmful was always going to be a struggle. Luckily, Olivares-Navarrete and his fearless sidekicks make up in imagination what they lack in scientific integrity.

Creating the illusion

To show that vaping while pregnant is dangerous, the team decided to do an experiment: They got some animal embryos and exposed them to e-liquid. Now, animal testing isn’t perfect. It sometimes gives very misleading results. But, often, how a chemical affects animals can tell us a lot about how it might affect humans. After all rats and mice – especially the varieties used in labs – are genetically pretty similar to us. Unlike, say, frogs.

Frogs are not that similar to us. In particular, the way they develop is completely different. Human babies develop in their mother’s womb, in an environment that’s carefully fed with nutrients and kept at a constant temperature and chemical balance by the mother’s body. Frog spawn is laid in a pond and abandoned; it then hatches into tadpoles, which become pollywogs and finally adult frogs – all while coping with different temperatures, moisture levels and chemical effects.

The result of this is that frogs have much more complicated DNA than we do, because they need to be able to respond to a wide range of conditions as they develop. That means their DNA contains a lot of genetic “switches” that we don’t have, which can be triggered by outside conditions to make sure they develop normally. Unfortunately for frogs these switches can also be fooled into triggering by chemicals, so the frog develops abnormally.

So guess what animals the VCU researchers used for their study. Did they get some nice lab rats, specially bred to react as much like humans as possible?

No. They experimented on a bunch of frog embryos.

A leap in the dark

Imagine my surprise when I read that the frog embryos, after being regularly doused in a mix of vape flavorings in saline solution as they developed, turned out to show facial mutations. The researchers are implying that this could also happen to human babies, but this is not science.

Allyson Kennedy, another of the team, “theorizes” that the mutations were caused by diacetyl in the e-liquids. Has diacetyl in any form ever been associated with birth defects? No, it hasn’t. Not even once. There is no reason to believe it could cause facial mutations in a human, a frog or any other species. But it sounds kind of scary and it gives people an excuse to mention popcorn lung (which, of course, they did). Kennedy isn’t “theorizing” anything here; she’s just making stuff up.

In fact it’s unlikely that e-liquid flavorings – which most pregnant women consume anyway, because they’re all used in food – had anything to do with the abnormal frogs. Most likely the cause was the saline solution the liquids were mixed with. Most frogs are freshwater animals and they’re very sensitive to salt. In fact biologists get quite excited when they find a species of frog that doesn’t develop abnormally if it’s exposed to salt as a tadpole.

Luckily I know just enough about science to deconstruct this story, but how many people will read it and be put off vaping? Some might even think that, okay, smoking while pregnant isn’t healthy, but it has to be better than vape chemicals that cause mutations. The thought of that happening makes me angry. What makes me even angrier is that, apparently, this is exactly what the researchers were trying to do.

Usually scientists put out a press release when they publish their work. Olivares-Navarrete hasn’t published this research yet, and frankly, it’s so bad that I doubt any journal will accept it. But he put out the press release anyway, and openly admits that his aim is to stop people vaping. This is a clear case of research funding being used to push an anti-vaping agenda, and unfortunately, because it comes from people in white coats with letters after their name, it’s probably going to be effective.

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