Although the number of young Nova Scotians who vape continues to climb, little is known about vaping’s impact on their lungs and whether it can cause permanent damage. 

A recently launched Dalhousie University study on vaping and young adults could help bridge that knowledge gap. 

“Vaping has come at us very quickly. We don’t know a lot about it and it’s something that at least until now hasn’t been very well regulated in Canada or anywhere else in the world,” Dr. Sanja Stanojevic said in an interview. 

Dr. Sanja Stanojevic, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s department of community health and epidemiology. Credit: Contributed

Stanojevic, an assistant professor in Dalhousie University’s department of community health and epidemiology, is the study’s lead. She said researchers want to better understand vaping’s effects because although many people believe vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes, we really don’t know much about how it directly impacts our lungs. 

“Given the gravity of how many people are using vapes and the fact that we’re making these assumptions about safety when we really don’t know, I think any information at this point will be useful,” she said.

While researchers can hypothesize about the potential health impacts of vaping, Stanojevic said the challenge is gathering hard evidence. She believes having a better grasp of what’s happening is crucial, especially here in Nova Scotia.

Vaping rate highest in Nova Scotia

“We know that across Canada, about 15% of people are regular vape users. And we know that in Nova Scotia, that rate is actually much higher than anywhere else in the country,” Stanojevic said. 

“Up to 40% of adolescents and young adults (in Nova Scotia) actually have tried vaping at least once, and we’ve also seen across Canada these trends increasing. So year on year, the percentage of people who vape is getting higher.”

The idea to investigate vaping and its impact on lung function began after Stanojevic attended a session about youth vaping intended for parents.  

“I was in the audience and I heard the feedback. Parents were saying how they had to scrape the grime off the inside of their car windows because the adolescents were vaping in the cars,” Stanojevic recalled.

“There was an outcry and people said, ‘Well, can’t we measure what’s going on? They all think that it’s safe, and everyone has this perception that it’s safer than smoking…’ And I thought, ‘This is what I do. I measure how the lungs work and I measure the early determinants of lung disease.’”

Vaping involves the inhalation directly into the lungs of fumes containing thousands of chemicals. Stanojevic said the challenge in measuring the activity’s impact is that the more traditional breathing tests don’t detect early lung damage. 

They measure the large airways — the trunk or bronchi of the lungs. By the time issues are discovered there, she said lung disease is typically “fairly significant” and permanent damage has already occurred. 

“We can’t always measure these effects because our tools aren’t sensitive enough to capture those early changes. We do know that people who vape get hospitalized more for respiratory symptoms, they have more coughs, they have more phlegm,” Stanojevic said. 

“We are starting to get studies in humans that are showing that there are changes in the symptoms, and so what our study is going to add is those objective measures of how the lungs are working and to see whether it’s possible to pick up the changes a little bit earlier than the tests we traditionally use.”

In their study, researchers will use a novel breathing test used to detect early lung damage in children with lung disease. Stanojevic already uses this test in her work with children who have cystic fibrosis. Instead of the large airways, it measures the function of the small airways.

“Every time we’re inhaling something, whether it’s vape or whether it’s air that we breathe or tobacco smoke, it’s those small airways that are going to get inflamed, that are going to start to get damaged,” Stanojevic said. 

“What we’re trying to pick up in those young people who vape is whether we can start to see changes in those airways. And most importantly, in these adolescents and young adults, their lungs are still developing and so they’re being exposed to something that potentially is affecting their lung health.”

Make choices that are right for them

Stanojevic said if they can detect early lung function impairment, health care providers can then check people’s lungs when they present with a cough or phlegm. If they do vape and start showing symptoms, they can be tested and their issues detected much earlier.

This will also allow researchers to conduct larger population studies to measure what the high rates of vaping might be doing to the general lung health of the population. 

“Ultimately, people make choices about what they do, and really we just want to provide them with information so they can make choices that are right for them,” Stanojevic said.

The lung function study is currently recruiting 100 participants between the ages of 18 and 24. 

Researchers are looking for 50 participants who use pod-type e-cigarettes exclusively (like JUUL) and another 50 who have never vaped and have no history of lung disease and no history of cigarette use. 

In addition to a short survey, participants undergo three breathing tests. The estimated time commitment is 40 minutes, and researchers can work around people’s schedules. Participants receive a $20 gift card for their time.

Those who fit the eligibility criteria and are interested can email the study coordinator or scan the QR code on their poster.

A bright yellow poster outlining the details of the Dalhousie University study and a QR code
Credit: Dalhousie University

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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