Dose Makes the Poison: The “Chemicals” Smear Against Vaping

    In 1997, a shocking headline in the Washington Post proclaimed, “DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE: UNRECOGNIZED KILLER.” The article correctly noted that “DHMO” is “implicated” in thousands of deaths, “can cause severe burns” in gas form, and “has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.”

    For people dependent on DHMO, “complete withdrawal means certain death,” it continued. “Yet the presence of the chemical has been confirmed in every river, stream, lake and reservoir in America.”

    That’s because DHMO, better known as H2O, is water.

    The article was based on a science project by 14-year-old Nathan Zohner, who found that distributing a tongue-in-cheek but technically factual report on DHMO to classmates convinced 86 percent of them that this dangerous chemical should be banned.

    This kind of knee-jerk alarmism over “chemicals” continues to hinder people from accessing safer alternatives to cigarettes.

    For over a billion people who smoke worldwide, there is no punchline. The kind of knee-jerk alarmism over “chemicals” that the DHMO prank sought to lampoon continues to hinder them from accessing safer alternatives to cigarettes.

    All around us, paltering statements declare that people are vaping chemicals found in antifreeze, paint thinner and nail polish remover, laundry detergent, weed killer, bug spray, cleaning products, or embalming fluid. A similar line is taken by the CDC’s latest campaign against youth vaping.

    This is a catastrophic way to “educate” the public about products that are much safer than smoking, and which greatly reduce your chances of premature death if you switch.

    Some of these same chemicals are found in foods such as ice cream. They are used in fog machines and prescription nicotine sprays. They are found in over-the-counter medications—including some which have been approved for children—and in cosmetics. All of these are products that are regulated under the watchful eyes of the US Food and Drug Administration.

    The term “chemical” is often used in menacing-sounding messages about e-liquid ingredients, such as propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, or other compounds created when the liquid is vaporized. The word “chemical” can make anything sound menacing. But anything made of matter is a chemical. Like our bodies.

    At high doses, formaldehyde is very toxic and carcinogenic. But humans are exposed to it every day.

    One frequent scare tactic is to sound the alarm about potential formaldehyde in a vape. The original source of that information was a flawed study, in which vaping devices were heated to unrealistically high temperatures and the resulting vapor was found to contain toxic levels of formaldehyde. No human would ever tolerate the conditions experienced by those poor lab machines.

    Formaldehyde is an interesting chemical. At high doses, it is very toxic and carcinogenic. But humans are exposed to it every day. Low levels of this chemical are used in building materials, paper, household products, food, and cosmetics. It can occur naturally in some foods. Yet no one demands that their neighbors quit eating or breathing it.

    Trace levels shouldn’t stop anyone from switching to vaping—not when combustible cigarette smoke contains higher levels of formaldehyde, and when there is no reliable evidence to link vaping with cancer in humans.

    Yet headlines not dissimilar to that Washington Post example have undoubtedly dissuaded many people from making the switch. That’s heartbreaking, and endlessly frustrating.

    People who smoke are entitled to facts with sensible context, not exaggerated and misleading claims.

    Hundreds of years ago, a Swiss chemist and physician named Paracelsus stated, “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” We’ve since shortened this piece of wisdom to: “The dose makes the poison.”

    Many substances or chemicals may have toxic properties but won’t measurably harm us unless we’re exposed to a high enough concentration. Toxicity depends on how long a person is exposed to a substance, how much of it they are exposed to, and how they are exposed.

    Spreading fear about ingredients is an old trick to sway public opinion. The same thing has been done by people who oppose vaccines. People who smoke are entitled to facts with sensible context, not exaggerated and misleading claims about the dangers of vaping. Lives depend on it.



    Photograph via Pickpik


    • Skip started smoking when she was 10, and quit through vaping in 2015. She is an enthusiastic tobacco harm reduction advocate. She works as a direct service professional at a group home providing services for people living with disabilities. Skip also lives with a disability and was diagnosed with autism, ADHD and depression in 2020. She is the co-founder and a research volunteer for the Safer Nicotine Wiki. She previously owned a vape shop and served as the research fellow for the Consumer Center of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. She lives in Minnesota.

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