Vaping and pregnancy: New research warns of crippling birth defects from the chemical flavoring

Like regular cigarettes, e-cigarettes can still harm pregnant women and their unborn children. According to a recent study, pregnant women who vape could give birth to infants with facial defects.

Based on the study’s results, “exposure to e-cigarette vapor damaged cells that would eventually become facial features in ways that could cause facial clefts and uneven growth of facial structures.”

E-cigarettes are increasing in popularity as alternatives to cigarettes, but the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) study provides further proof that vaping is not a 100 percent safe alternative for more traditional tobacco products. (Related: Vitamin C supplementation in pregnant smokers improves lung function of newborns.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and doctors advise that no form of smoking, even vaping, is safe for pregnant women, and this study offers “early tangible evidence” of the risks of e-cigarettes. Dr. Amanda Dickinson, the study’s senior author, led the VCU study which tested the responses of frog embryos to e-cigarette vapor.

Through a heating mechanism, e-cigarettes heat e-liquids and convert them into flavored vapor. The liquids contain nicotine and propylene, glycol, vegetable glycerine, and flavoring compounds.

One 2014 study confirmed that at least one “worrisome ingredient” was common in e-cigarette flavors. The findings of this study revealed that among 159 varieties of flavored vape liquids, more than two-thirds used a compound called diacetyl, which is linked to so-called “popcorn lung.”

VCU made note of the popcorn lung effect, along with previous research connecting e-liquid flavorings to “heart defects in developing zebrafish, brain development delays in mice, and the release of at least two carcinogens.”

In the VCU study, researchers used six different e-liquids with varying nicotine strengths and one or more flavoring additives. Two liquids with the greatest number of different flavors were connected to the “more dramatic effects.”

Both of the many-flavored varieties caused dramatically cleft faces or other facial birth defects in the frogs they were tested on. The authors posit that this is “translatable to human embryos.” They believe that when a pregnant woman vapes, the fetus will be exposed to around the same concentrations of chemicals as the frogs in the experiment.

Facial and mouth clefts are gaps in the middle of the face that often affect both soft muscle and skin tissue and bones. The condition is rare in humans, and it affects only about one in every 150,000 babies around the world. If the cleft is severe, when left untreated those with cleft faces and palates can find it hard to eat. It can also “make them prone to ear infections and hearing loss, speech and language impairments(,) and dental problems.”

E-cigarettes are “generally perceived by the public as ‘safe’ for recreational use and only associated with mild effects when used during pregnancy,” wrote the researchers. They concluded, “The work we have done here contradicts this perception and has the potential to inform public policy regarding the distribution and regulation of the ECIG market.”

Other dangers of smoking while pregnant

Aside from possibly causing cleft palates in unborn infants, smoking can endanger pregnant women in the following ways:

  • Miscarriage and stillbirth — Smoking can increase the likelihood of both early miscarriage and stillbirth, and the dangerous chemicals in cigarettes are often behind this.
  • Ectopic pregnancy — Nicotine can cause contractions in the fallopian tubes, and these contractions can prevent an embryo from passing through. This can result in an ectopic pregnancy, where “a fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus, either in the fallopian tube, or in the abdomen.” If this happens, the embryo must be removed to prevent life-threatening complications to the mother.
  • Other birth defects — Aside from cleft palates, other common problems caused by smoking include congenital heart defects and problems with the heart’s structure.

Learn more about the dangers of smoking and tips on how to quit smoking at

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