E-cigarette health claims going up in smoke?

8 Dec 2015

Some e-cigarettes have been found to house chemicals linked with a grim disease called ‘Popcorn Lung’, with Diacetyl found in three-quarters of both the devices and the refill liquids during a Harvard study.

What does this mean? Well, Popcorn Lung is a disease more accurately known as bronchiolitis obliterans, which was originally discovered in workers at popcorn processing plants after they inhaled diacetyl from the artificial butter flavour used.

Thus the term ‘Popcorn Lung’, and it’s not a disease you want to entertain anytime soon, as it scars your lungs and there is no known cure – except a transplant, if you consider that as such.

Inhaled is key here, as digesting diacetyl is, apparently, fine. It’s the fumes that get you.

Researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at 51 types of flavoured e-cigarettes and liquids (of which there are several thousand), finding diacetyl, acetoin, or 2,3-pentanedione in 47 of them.

Acetoin and 2,3-pentanedione are related chemicals.

Recognition, education

“Recognition of the hazards associated with inhaling flavouring chemicals started with ‘Popcorn Lung’ over a decade ago,” said lead author Joseph Allen, whose work appears in Environmental Health Perspectives.

“However, diacetyl and other related flavouring chemicals are used in many other flavours beyond butter-flavoured popcorn, including fruit flavours, alcohol flavours, and, we learned in our study, candy-flavoured e-cigarettes.”

The sweet-flavoured findings aren’t, actually, too groundbreaking. What is, though, is that these chemicals were found in ‘classic’ and ‘menthol’ e-cigarette flavours, too.

“A lot of people think it ends with butter flavours,” continued Allen. “But in fact if you look at where diacetyl and other flavouring compounds are used, it’s a really eye-opening list of flavourings that you wouldn’t think it’d be in.”

The study was done under the premise of US regulation, or lack thereof, with the country’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration – as well as the flavouring industry – warning workers about diacetyl inhalation.

“Since most of the health concerns about e-cigarettes have focused on nicotine, there is still much we do not know about e-cigarettes,” said study co-author David Christiani.

A game of catch-up

Science is, quite clearly, playing catch up to an industry that exploded onto the scene just a few years ago. Previous studies have, indeed, found diacetyl in some e-cigarette flavours, with this latest finding adding to the pile.

This will have repercussions on both consumer and manufacturer as, from a consumer point of view, the more you know what you’re inhaling, the better.

And, from a manufacturer point of view, regulation will almost certainly be influenced by the information made available about both health risks and health benefits.

Back in August, British health officials sang the praises of e-cigarettes, saying they are 95 per cent safer than alternative, traditional forms of smoking.

E-cigarette image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic