Heidi Pardon was living in UW-Eau Claire’s dorms several years ago when she noticed a surprising number of fellow Blugolds using e-cigarettes and vaping devices.
While her peers insisted that it was safe and harmless fun, the future nurse knew that inhaling nicotine and/or other chemicals into their lungs could not possibly be safe nor harmless.
Three years later — with vaping now deemed a national public health epidemic among teens and young adults — Pardon is partnering with a UW-Eau Claire nursing professor to help educate teens and young adults about its dangers.
“I see it all over campus,” Pardon says of vaping. “People think it's harmless and cool. I’m hoping that they’ll think twice about doing it when they become more aware of the chemicals and other stuff they’re inhaling. They think it’s safer than smoking, but it’s not.”
Last spring, Pardon and Dr. Diane Marcyjanik, an assistant professor of nursing, received a Gritzmacher Science Education Fellowship to support their project, “Vaping: A New Public Health Safety Concern.” The fellowship provides the researchers with a stipend as well as some monies for supplies and travel.
Marcyjanik and Pardon, a senior from Slinger, spent the summer researching vaping and vaping-related health issues, and now are putting the finishing touches on an evidence-based educational presentation on the effects of vaping and e-cigarettes.
They plan to share their findings with students at middle and high schools, as well as with college students, parents, educators, health care providers and others with an interest in the issue. Their first presentation is scheduled with a Native American community in October.
“The vaping epidemic is hitting adolescent teens and young adults the most,” Pardon says. “We want to raise awareness for these populations and with those who have an impact on this age group like teachers and parents. We hope to share it in communities across Wisconsin and beyond.”
Their presentation touches on what’s in the vaping liquids and the potential health implications when those liquids are inhaled, while also stressing that vaping is still so new that little is known about the long-term health effects.
While many questions remain, health care professionals do know that nicotine and other chemicals often found in e-cigarettes and vaping liquids can be damaging to the developing adolescent brain, Marcyjanik says.
“We know that teens’ brains are not done developing until they are 25 so it’s going to have an effect,” Marcyjanik says. “What we don’t know yet is how it will affect their brains long term. There is just so much that is still unknown, which makes it even scarier.”
The vaping, "juuling" and e-cigarette industries advertise vaping as a safe alternative to smoking, something that simply isn’t true, Marcyjanik and Pardon say.
Much like a duck can’t fly if it has oil on its wings, a lung can’t expand and contract as it should if it has oil on its lining, Marcyjanik says when describing some of the health dangers related to vaping.
Even more alarming is that vaping juices are being manufactured and sold on the black market, so buyers have no idea what is in the vaping juices they’re inhaling, Pardon and Marcyjanik say.
Research also shows that many teens who vape, do end up smoking, which creates even more long-term health concerns, they say.
“As a nurse, it does not make sense to advertise placing any type of foreign substance, including smoke vapor, into your lungs as being safe,” Marcyjanik says. “Not starting to smoke is what’s safe, and research shows that vaping often leads to smoking.”
Still another area of concern is the impact the vaping smoke has on the health of people around them, Pardon says. While there is a lot of research about the impact of second-hand cigarette smoke, it’s too soon to know how the chemicals released into the air from vapes and e-cigarettes will affect those who are exposed to it, she says.
Vaping already was a significant health concern last spring when they began their project, but it has taken on even greater urgency given the growing number of teens and young adults who have died or been hospitalized in recent weeks because of vaping-related health problems.
Already, six teens or young adults have died and hundreds more have been hospitalized because of health issues traced to their vaping.
“It’s become a major public health safety concern,” Marcyjanik says, noting that social media is allowing people to see the issue morph from a health concern into an epidemic in real time. “It’s really snowballed. In a matter of months — not years like it took for cigarettes — this has become a huge health crisis.”
Given the many potential dangers, it’s crucial that public health professionals share accurate information and encourage conversations about the effects of vaping, the researchers say.
Pardon and Marcyjanik will present their research to teens, parents of teens, young adults, teachers, professors, health care employees and others who interact with teens and young adults. They also want to get information to expectant mothers, and anybody who knows an expectant mother, since vaping can impact the health of the mother and baby.
When sharing their research, Pardon says she will keep her audience in mind to ensure people get the information that is most relevant to them.
For example, when talking with parents and educators, they will include images of devices often used in vaping and "juuling," Pardon says, noting that many adults will be surprised by what they see because devices often are made to look like pencils or other things teens use every day in schools or at home.
When presenting to teens or young adults, she will focus more on the potential health issues related to vaping and potential long-term effects, she says, adding that she believes young people may take the information she shares more seriously because it’s coming from someone in their peer group.
Hearing warnings about health effects of vaping from her — a college student similar in age to them — also reinforces the fact that not all young people are vaping, she says.
Pardon was eager to be part of the research project because it will help get important information to teens and others about the dangers of vaping.
However, the fellowship experience also greatly enhanced her nursing education, she says.
Through the research, she educated herself about a current health crisis and helped strengthen skills that will make her an even better nurse, says Pardon, who will graduate in May 2020 with a nursing degree and a German oral proficiency certificate.
For example, she had to hone her research skills to ensure she was finding the most recent and best information, learn to work collaboratively with her faculty mentor, and strengthen her communication skills so she can effectively share information with audiences of varying ages and backgrounds.
“As a nursing student, I’m constantly looking to learn more about current issues in health care,” Pardon says. “One of the most valuable things for a college student to do is to work on a real problem with someone who is an expert in their field, and I did that with Dr. Marcyjanik. This experience is helping me prepare for my professional nursing career.”
Marcyjanik agrees, noting that real-world experiences are especially important for nursing students to help them make connections from theory to practice.
Pardon and Marcyjanik are the first in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences to receive the Gritzmacher Science Education Fellowship, which was established by Christine Gritzmacher, a UW-Eau Claire graduate. The science education fellowship supports students who are trained by faculty or staff in performing science outreach activities.
Pardon is grateful to have received a fellowship that is giving her an opportunity to make a difference in the community, while also gaining new skills that will be valuable in her future career in health care.
“I’m passionate about health care and promoting healthy living habits,” Pardon says. “After doing this research, I can see the detrimental effects vaping is having on young people. I’d love to say this presentation will immediately change peoples’ behaviors, but my realistic goal is just to get this information to as many people as possible.”
Marcyjanik and Pardon are available to present to any school, organization or group that’s interested. For more information or to schedule a presentation, contact Dr. Diane Marcyjanik at email@example.com or 715-836-4012.
Photo caption: Nursing student Heidi Pardon (left) and her faculty mentor, Dr. Diane Marcyjanik, have created a presentation they plan to share with teens about the dangers of vaping.