Evaluation of e-liquid toxicity using an open-source high-throughput screening assay

PLoS Biol. 2018 Mar 27;16(3):e2003904. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2003904. eCollection 2018 Mar.


The e-liquids used in electronic cigarettes (E-cigs) consist of propylene glycol (PG), vegetable glycerin (VG), nicotine, and chemical additives for flavoring. There are currently over 7,700 e-liquid flavors available, and while some have been tested for toxicity in the laboratory, most have not. Here, we developed a 3-phase, 384-well, plate-based, high-throughput screening (HTS) assay to rapidly triage and validate the toxicity of multiple e-liquids. Our data demonstrated that the PG/VG vehicle adversely affected cell viability and that a large number of e-liquids were more toxic than PG/VG. We also performed gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) analysis on all tested e-liquids. Subsequent nonmetric multidimensional scaling (NMDS) analysis revealed that e-liquids are an extremely heterogeneous group. Furthermore, these data indicated that (i) the more chemicals contained in an e-liquid, the more toxic it was likely to be and (ii) the presence of vanillin was associated with higher toxicity values. Further analysis of common constituents by electron ionization revealed that the concentration of cinnamaldehyde and vanillin, but not triacetin, correlated with toxicity. We have also developed a publicly available searchable website (www.eliquidinfo.org). Given the large numbers of available e-liquids, this website will serve as a resource to facilitate dissemination of this information. Our data suggest that an HTS approach to evaluate the toxicity of multiple e-liquids is feasible. Such an approach may serve as a roadmap to enable bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to better regulate e-liquid composition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Computational Biology
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems*
  • Epithelial Cells / drug effects
  • Flavoring Agents / chemistry
  • Flavoring Agents / toxicity*
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry
  • Glycerol / toxicity*
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Nicotine / toxicity*
  • Propylene Glycol / toxicity*
  • Toxicity Tests


  • Flavoring Agents
  • Propylene Glycol
  • Nicotine
  • Glycerol