Toxicity of the main electronic cigarette components, propylene glycol, glycerin, and nicotine, in Sprague-Dawley rats in a 90-day OECD inhalation study complemented by molecular endpoints

Food Chem Toxicol. 2017 Nov;109(Pt 1):315-332. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2017.09.001. Epub 2017 Sep 5.


While the toxicity of the main constituents of electronic cigarette (ECIG) liquids, nicotine, propylene glycol (PG), and vegetable glycerin (VG), has been assessed individually in separate studies, limited data on the inhalation toxicity of them is available when in mixtures. In this 90-day subchronic inhalation study, Sprague-Dawley rats were nose-only exposed to filtered air, nebulized vehicle (saline), or three concentrations of PG/VG mixtures, with and without nicotine. Standard toxicological endpoints were complemented by molecular analyses using transcriptomics, proteomics, and lipidomics. Compared with vehicle exposure, the PG/VG aerosols showed only very limited biological effects with no signs of toxicity. Addition of nicotine to the PG/VG aerosols resulted in effects in line with nicotine effects observed in previous studies, including up-regulation of xenobiotic enzymes (Cyp1a1/Fmo3) in the lung and metabolic effects, such as reduced serum lipid concentrations and expression changes of hepatic metabolic enzymes. No toxicologically relevant effects of PG/VG aerosols (up to 1.520 mg PG/L + 1.890 mg VG/L) were observed, and no adverse effects for PG/VG/nicotine were observed up to 438/544/6.6 mg/kg/day. This study demonstrates how complementary systems toxicology analyses can reveal, even in the absence of observable adverse effects, subtoxic and adaptive responses to pharmacologically active compounds such as nicotine.

Keywords: Electronic cigarette; Glycerin; Inhalation toxicity; Nicotine; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 413 guideline; Propylene glycol; Systems toxicology.

MeSH terms

  • Aerosols / toxicity
  • Animals
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP1A1 / genetics
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP1A1 / metabolism
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems
  • Glycerol / chemistry
  • Glycerol / toxicity*
  • Lung / drug effects
  • Lung / enzymology
  • Nicotine / chemistry
  • Nicotine / toxicity*
  • Oxygenases / genetics
  • Oxygenases / metabolism
  • Propylene Glycol / chemistry
  • Propylene Glycol / toxicity*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley


  • Aerosols
  • Propylene Glycol
  • Nicotine
  • Oxygenases
  • dimethylaniline monooxygenase (N-oxide forming)
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP1A1
  • Glycerol