Young adults who vape wanted for lung study

Members of the research team demonstrate the breath test at their laboratory at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (Submitted by Sanja Stanojevic - image credit)
Members of the research team demonstrate the breath test at their laboratory at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (Submitted by Sanja Stanojevic - image credit)

Researchers from Dalhousie University are recruiting people aged 18 to 25 for a study on the effects of vaping.

"Frankly, we can't wait 40 years to find out if vaping is bad for us," said Sanja Stanojevic, a respiratory epidemiologist, and one of the people behind the study.

Vaping is relatively new and has become very prevalent, said Stanojevic, particularly in adolescents and young adults.

Some of the highest rates of use are in the Maritimes, she said.

In 2021, 13 per cent of Canadian youth, aged 15 to 19, and 17 per cent of young adults, aged 20 to 24, reported having vaped at least once during the 30-day period before the survey, according to a Statistics Canada release from last spring.

That compared with a rate of four per cent among Canadian adults surveyed, aged 25 or older.

New Brunswick had the highest rate of vaping at nine per cent, said Statistics Canada, followed by Prince Edward Island at eight per cent.

A certain amount of evidence is already pointing to negative effects from vaping, said Stanojevic.

What hasn't been seen yet is what happens in human lungs in early phases.

A couple of deaths were linked to vaping in 2019 in the United States, she noted, but these were attributed to people adding things to their vape devices.

"It's very difficult to know what exactly is happening because some of the tools that we have aren't able to detect those differences just quite yet."

In questionnaires, people who vape report more respiratory symptoms, said Stanojevic.

"They tend to have more coughing, more phlegm, often they report trouble breathing."

However, in standard spirometry lung function tests, "it's really hard to detect differences."

Spirometry measures how much air you inhale, how much you exhale and how quickly you exhale.

It's a really good test, she said, but it focuses on the large airways — the equivalent of the trunk if you think of the lung as being like a tree.

"You have to be pretty sick — you have to have quite a lot of damage to your lungs and particularly those large airways before we start to see those differences."

Even with cigarette smoke, she said, it takes 40 years of constant exposure to pick up on changes that way.

The Dalhousie study is using a different type of breathing test to try to capture what's happening earlier, said Stanojevic. It looks at how the lungs exchange gas.

Submitted by Sanja Stanojevic
Submitted by Sanja Stanojevic

Gas exchange happens at the smaller branch level in "teeny tiny" airways "far away from that main branch."

Healthy lungs can exchange all of their air within five or six volume exchanges, she said, or 10 to 15 breaths.

Damaged lungs take longer to exchange all of their air.

"If you have damage in those small airways and you have either inflammation where there's trouble opening or you have scar tissue where air is trapped in parts of your lung. The tests that we're using actually captures that."

The breath test has been around since the 1960s, said Stanojevic, and has proven to be "really sensitive" at early detection of changes in children with chronic respiratory diseases.

She and her colleagues think it should also be able to help identify whether damage is happening due to vaping and provide direction for future research.

They're starting with test subjects aged 18 to 25 because they're easier to recruit, she said, but eventually hope to test some younger vapers.

"Most people don't know that your lungs continue to grow and develop well into your twenties," said Stanojevic.

"One of the concerns that we have is that if we are exposing our lungs to harmful toxins like the vaporized flavours and vaporized liquids that are contained in the vape devices, we may actually prevent the lungs from reaching their maximal capacity during this growth phase."

Not reaching maximal lung growth predisposes a person to lung disease later on.

Mostly they are looking for people who exclusively use pod-type e-cigarettes because the doses are measurable.

Participants have to go to a laboratory on the Dalhousie University campus in Halifax for one visit that lasts about 40 minutes, said Stanojevic. They receive a $20 gift card.

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