Vaping has surged in popularity, particularly among Gen-Z, who might have been the first generation of non-smokers. Many people do not know what they are vaping, with University of Wollongong researchers revealing that it is not uncommon for dangerous banned substances to make their way into the devices.

Boxes of vibrant vapes fill every vacant space on the laboratory floor. The multitude of coloured vessels have a curiously artistic presence. Each metal tube carries with it a story of who it belonged to and why it was used.

These discarded vapes, close to 1000 all up, have been cracked open and gutted in an attempt to discover its true contents. Not just what the label says it contains, but what is actually in each colourful compact tube. Through a surgical-like process, the lid is pulled off, the insides are extracted, and the liquid is drained and analysed.

So, what is actually in these things? UOW PhD student Caitlin Jenkins has been trying to answer that question. Through analysing the contents, she finds the liquid is comprised of carrier fluids, flavour molecules, nicotine, and coolants. More concerning however were the dangerous molecules of cinnamaldehyde and benzaldehyde. Both substances are  banned in  Australia.

“We found that in about four per cent of vapes, they have banned molecules,” Ms Jenkins said.

“The TGO110 banned eight compounds that are known to cause bad things for your health, and we have found four of those: cinnamaldehyde, benzaldehyde, ethylene glycol, and acetoin, in vapes that we have analysed.”

That is close to 40 vapes in Ms Jenkins’ sample size that have prohibited compounds in them. Compounds that are known to cause serious health problems such as cancer, respiratory tract, and popcorn lungs. These dangerous compounds were not written on the vapes label and almost certainly not known by the consumers. However, this is not the only thing left off the vapes various labels.

“We have analysed a whole lot of vapes and overall, they almost always have nicotine in them,” Ms Jenkins said.

“I would say as high as 90 per cent have nicotine. Most of them aren’t labelled as having nicotine and it’s usually as a high concentration.”

Vapes that have been analysed

The incorrect labelling of nicotine is concerning for those using vapes that are supposedly “nicotine-free” to assist with quitting smoking or scaling back on nicotine intake. It is also particularly harmful to young people who may have never had nicotine before or believe they are not vaping nicotine.

“Some kids are vaping so much throughout the day that they are getting lightheaded because they’re taking on so much nicotine,” Ms Jenkins said.

“We’ve sent the schools some of the data we have analysed so that they can communicate that to the students so that they actually know what they’re vaping.

“Some of them still think they’re vaping water, some of them know they’re vaping nicotine but not what concentration, and then some might know exactly what they’re vaping. So we are just making sure that there’s more information out there.”

The Australian government is attempting to resolve these problems by rolling out a ban on the sale of vapes without a prescription and banning the importation of vapes without a license. This has resulted in a range of seizures of illegally imported vapes by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Despite these efforts, enforcement needs more work considering most people are still easily accessing vapes from service stations, tobacco stores, and convenience stores in most states.

However, it seems that some states in Australia are taking the national ban more seriously. Louise Da Silva is currently travelling around Australia with her wife, Sandy, and when they ventured to Western Australia, she faced an unexpected challenge.

“In WA you can’t buy vapes anywhere. It’s only online and they have to be sent to you,” Mrs Da Silva said.

“NSW, SA, VIC, never had an issue, but as soon as we hit WA, I went to like five tobacconists and asked for vapes and they said no sorry we don’t sell them.”

Mrs Da Silva turned to vaping after encountering some health issues and was told by her doctor that she could no longer smoke cigarettes. Her experience demonstrates the reason why vapes were originally introduced – to help people quit smoking cigarettes. After being told she couldn’t smoke, she eased off cigarettes by using nicotine vapes and eventually turned to nicotine-free flavoured vapes, which she still uses now.

“After I got my blood clots, that’s when I had to give up and that devastated me. It was like losing my best bud, and from then I went to vaping,” Mrs Da Silva said.

“It definitely helped me give up. It was an easier transition I think and a lot easier to give up smoking than it would have been without it.”

Mrs Da Silva has also struggled with chronic pain for several years and experimented with cannabis vaping to see if this would help her.

“I tried CBD with THC vapes as well, but I had that more for chronic pain,” Mrs Da Silva said.

“I didn’t keep it going long enough to get the full effects. It was just another thing that the doctors tried with me to try and help me.

“For me I wouldn’t say, yep that was awesome.”

UOW PhD student Grace Gschwend is currently looking into the chemistry of cannabis vaping. This is an emerging practice that is gradually being used more to assist with things such as chronic pain. Now that cannabis can be effectively vaporised, and prescription cannabis is becoming more accessible, it is opening avenues for people in similar situations like Mrs Da Silva; even if it was not as effective for her.

“Lots of people are recommended to use vapes if they’re prescribed medicinal cannabis,” Ms Gschwend said.

“So, because you’re not actually smoking the cannabis itself, it’s not being heated to a higher temperature and there are less compounds being formed in the combustion process.

“People are exposed to less potential carcinogens when they’re vaporising cannabis rather than smoking it.”

Ms Gschwend’s research is particularly focused on the different devices and methods that people are using to vaporise cannabis. From a survey she conducted earlier in the year, it was discovered that a range of people are using dry herb vapes and cannabis oil vapes. Some other people are vaporising cannabis concentrates which are very potent.

For whatever reason people are choosing to vape, it is critical that they know what they are inhaling. It has been proven that banned compounds are making their way into vapes which are subsequently making their way into Australia. Despite efforts from the Australian Government to tighten the laws around selling and importing vapes, access to vapes is still relatively easy, apart from Western Australia.

“People need to find out what’s actually in their vapes so they can make the right choice for them,” Ms Jenkins said.

Gen Z have been brought up being told smoking cigarettes is bad, yet the trend of vaping is catching like fire. Educating young people on the contents of vapes and the health risks involved is crucial, Ms Jenkins said.

There are additional problems with disposing of vapes which are becoming increasingly concerning. Find out more below: