Connect
MJA
MJA

Nicotine and other potentially harmful compounds in “nicotine‐free” e‐cigarette liquids in Australia

Emily Chivers, Maxine Janka, Peter Franklin, Benjamin Mullins and Alexander Larcombe
Med J Aust 2019; 210 (3): 127-128. || doi: 10.5694/mja2.12059
Published online: 14 January 2019

Awareness and use of e‐cigarettes is increasing in Australia.1 The thousands of available e‐liquids contain various excipients, nicotine, flavourings, and other additives. There is little to no regulation of their manufacture, and potentially dangerous ingredients and incorrect nicotine levels have been identified.2 Of particular concern is the frequency with which nicotine is detected in e‐liquids labelled “nicotine‐free”.2 E‐liquids containing nicotine cannot legally be sold in Australia,3 but inaccurate labelling means that users may unwittingly inhale this addictive substance, or retailers may sell incorrectly labelled nicotine‐containing e‐liquids to willing customers. The aim of our investigation was to assess the chemical composition of a range of e‐liquids available in Australia, focusing on nicotine and other potentially harmful compounds. Formal ethics approval was not required for this study.

We purchased ten “nicotine‐free” e‐liquids of a variety of brands and flavours, online and over the counter from Australian suppliers. None disclosed ingredient information beyond vague reporting of the excipient mix and the absence of nicotine. E‐liquids were analysed quantitatively by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC‐MS) in a commercial laboratory (Supporting Information).

Apart from the excipient and nicotine, sixteen known chemicals were identified; a further seven could not be identified with our methods (Box 1). The propylene glycol/glycerine excipient accounted for 91.4–98.8% (mean, 96.3%; SD, 3.1%) abundance, based on peak areas in GC‐MS chromatograms. Nicotine was detected in six e‐liquids; the levels in three (1.3, 1.4, 2.9 mg/mL) were comparable with those of commonly available low dose nicotine e‐liquids. The fact that nicotine was present has important implications for addiction and health, and reflects its use in the e‐cigarette liquid manufacturing process.4

Of the other chemicals we detected, 2‐chlorophenol, classified as acutely toxic by the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, was identified in all e‐liquids. Probably an excipient contaminant, 2‐chlorophenol is commonly used in insecticides, herbicides, and disinfectants. There is no Safework Australia exposure standard for 2‐chlorophenol, but it is known to be a respiratory and dermal irritant. Similar chemicals (eg, 2,4‐dichlorophenol) have been identified in canola oil as pesticide residue.5 Glycerine is a by‐product of biodiesel production, often manufactured from canola oil. Other substances we often detected were 2‐amino‐octanoic, hexadecanoic, and octadecanoic acids. 2‐Amino‐octanoic acid is a metabolite occasionally found in mammalian blood, urine, and faeces; its presence may indicate contamination by biological substances during manufacture. Hexadecanoic and octadecanoic acids are relatively benign for humans, and are commonly used in foodstuffs, soaps, and detergents, but it is not known whether they affect health when heated and inhaled. Most other substances were flavours (anisaldehyde, menthol, vanillin, ethylvanillin), flavouring precursors (isoeugenol), or solvents (triacetin, benzyl alcohol). These chemicals are common e‐cigarette liquid ingredients, and are generally regarded as safe for ingestion or dermal exposure, but their effects on health when heated, aerosolised, and inhaled are unknown.

Box – Chemical composition of ten e‐liquids purchased in Australia (percentage abundance, based on peak areas in gas chromatography–mass spectrometry chromatograms)

Flavour

Excipient

Nicotine

Hexa‐decanoic acid

Octa‐decanoic acid

1,2,3‐butanetriol

2‐chloro‐phenol

2‐amino‐octanoic acid

Unknown #1

Others


Blueberry*

92.8%

ND

0.03%

0.05%

0.04%

0.24%

4.44%

0.06%

Triacetin, benzyl alcohol

Cigar*

96.4%

ND

0.07%

0.12%

ND

0.47%

0.53%

0.06%

Glycine, isoeugenol, vanillin, ethylvanillin, unknowns #5, #6, #7

Flue‐cured tobacco*

98.7%

0.09%

ND

ND

0.16%

0.24%

0.58%

0.08%

Unknown #2

Tobacco*

99.5%

0.14%

ND

ND

0.09%

0.21%

ND

0.06%

Tobacco

98.2%

0.29%

0.20%

ND

ND

0.30%

0.61%

0.13%

Tetradecanoic acid

Vitamin B

98.9%

ND

0.04%

0.07%

ND

0.13%

0.18%

0.06%

Triacetin, glycine

Tobacco§

91.4%

0.05%

0.05%

0.17%

ND

0.22%

8.01%

0.06%

Menthol§

91.9%

ND

0.17%

0.13%

ND

0.25%

0.76%

0.14%

Triacetin, propionic acid, menthol, glycine, unknowns #3, #4

Classic lemon cheesecake

97.6%

0.13%

0.05%

0.03%

ND

0.19%

1.77%

0.09%

Anisaldehyde

Double apple

97.2%

0.05%

1.70%

0.20%

0.18%

0.32%

ND

0.06%

Propionic acid, benzyl benzoate


ND = not detected (below detection limit). Country of origin: * Australia; † China; ‡ United States; § unknown.

Received 22 May 2018, accepted 9 October 2018

  • Emily Chivers1
  • Maxine Janka1
  • Peter Franklin2
  • Benjamin Mullins3
  • Alexander Larcombe1,3

  • 1 Telethon Kids Institute, Perth, WA
  • 2 University of Western Australia, Perth, WA
  • 3 Curtin University, Perth, WA


Acknowledgements: 

We acknowledge funding from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Health Department of Western Australia, and from the National Health and Medical Research Council (APP1128231).

Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.

  • 1. Yong HH, Borland R, Balmford J, et al. Trends in e‐cigarette awareness, trial, and use under the different regulatory environments of Australia and the United Kingdom. Nicotine Tob Res 2015; 17: 1203–1211.
  • 2. Trehy ML, Ye W, Hadwiger ME, et al. Analysis of electronic cigarette cartridges, refill solutions, and smoke for nicotine and nicotine related impurities. J Liq Chromatogr R T 2011; 34: 1442–1458.
  • 3. Douglas H, Hall W, Gartner C. E‐cigarettes and the law in Australia. Aust Fam Physician 2015; 44: 415–418.
  • 4. Goniewicz ML, Gupta R, Lee YH, et al. Nicotine levels in electronic cigarette refill solutions: a comparative analysis of products from the US, Korea, and Poland. Int J Drug Policy 2015; 26: 583–588.
  • 5. Abdel‐Gawad H, Hegazi B. Fate of 14C‐ethyl prothiofos insecticide in canola seeds and oils. J Environ Sci Health B 2010; 45: 116–122.

Author

remove_circle_outline Delete Author
add_circle_outline Add Author

Comment
Do you have any competing interests to declare? *

I/we agree to assign copyright to the Medical Journal of Australia and agree to the Conditions of publication *
I/we agree to the Terms of use of the Medical Journal of Australia *
Email me when people comment on this article

You do not have permission to add a response to this article.