Interdisciplinary research team studies whether using e-cigarettes while pregnant causes craniofacial birth defects

By Leah Small
University Public Affairs

E-cigarettes are touted as a safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes, but they could pose alarming risks to children in utero, Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have found.

According to results from a two-year study and collaboration between faculty from VCU’s Biomedical Engineering and Biology departments, using e-cigarettes (also called vaping) while pregnant could cause craniofacial birth defects. These birth defects are abnormalities of the face and head that form in utero.

The study is one in a series of seven projects by research universities across the United States that look into the potential health impacts of e-cigarettes on parts of the head, face and oral cavity. Each study is funded with part of a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the National Institutes of Health.

VCU researchers aim to educate the public about the dangers of e-cigarettes and produce results that would compel tighter government regulation, said primary investigator René Olivares-Navarrete, D.D.S., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“We’re not going to be able to stop everyone from using e-cigarettes,” Olivares-Navarrete said. “But at least we can tell them this is your choice and give strong evidence about what can happen.”

Co-investigator Amanda Dickinson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Developmental Biology, said the VCU study is one of the first to investigate how certain chemical compounds found in e-cigarettes could be linked to orofacial disorders.

“There’s no real study showing why vaping during pregnancy isn’t safe, or when it’s most dangerous during development,” she said.

Olivares-Navarrete and Dickinson plan to publish the study and release numerical data on their findings this summer. Learn more