Will Vaping Give You Popcorn Lung? Here's the Truth


Another week, another study that says vaping is going to kill you.

New research from a Harvard team that examined 51 various electronic cigarettes and e-liquids — the juices used in vaping — found that 75% of the juices contained dangerous flavoring chemicals that historically have been tied to a lung disease called "popcorn lung."

Headlines like "Those Cool E-Cigs You're Vaping Will Prob Give You Lung Disease" would have you believe it's the vaping itself that's causing the disease, confirming the righteous boast that the proud vapers who think they're evading carcinogens by looking for a nicotine alternative are actually harming themselves all along. Other headlines, like "Chemicals in Flavored E-Cigarettes Tied to 'Popcorn Lung' Disease," imply that the flavorings have just been linked to a lung disease, as if people who vape had contracted popcorn lung.

Don't be misled. That's not what the study found. 

The study identified the presence of a nefarious ingredient — an artificial flavoring called diacetyl — in far more juices than the vaping community expected. What's happening here is that a large number of actors in a neglected and unregulated industry are incidentally using an optional ingredient that the vaping industry at large is against using in the first place.

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Popcorn lung: In May 2000, a Missouri doctor contacted the state's Department of Health and Senior Services to report that eight of his patients who had formerly worked at a microwavable popcorn factory had an obstructive respiratory disease that looked like bronchiolitis obliterans. Half of them were on the list for lung transplants. After years of investigation, the CDC traced this ailment to diacetyl.

Diacetyl is a yellow-green flavoring chemical that has an intensely buttery flavor. It's one of the most prevalent ingredients in popcorn-flavoring compounds. Diacetyl is classified as "generally regarded as safe" by the FDA, the same classification given to caffeine and many spices. That is, it's safe to ingest — but inhaling it is a whole other story. 

Many vape juices are made without diacetyl. It's not a necessary flavor additive.

Workers who had been close to vats that were giving off diacetyl vapor were found to have severely increased risk for lung disease, and diacetyl-induced bronchiolitis obliterans was henceforth referred to as "popcorn lung."

The vaping industry has known about the use of diacetyl as an e-liquid flavoring chemical for years, and it has been waging an internal war to identify juices that contain this chemical. Vendors will bluster about how their liquids don't contain traces of harmful flavorings, but because it's such an early, unregulated and under-examined industry, there's too much opacity to know when in the process of making an e-liquid — from the wholesaling of chemical compounds to the mixing of the juice — diacetyl makes its way into the product. For customers, the labels on e-liquids simply say "Natural and Artificial Flavors."

Does this mean vaping is bad for you? Not exactly. But the study shows some juices are likely bad for you because of a certain ingredient. Plenty of vape juices are made without diacetyl. It's only one of many flavorings, and though the Harvard study found that its presence is common, it's not a necessary flavor additive. 

A simple solution would be moderate, common-sense legislation to prevent the inclusion of diacetyl and similarly harmful chemicals from vape juices. Another alternative is more robust, impartial vaping research and a standardized way to test for a select group of bad chemical agents, which vaping companies like Five Pawns have been calling for while simply paying for studies on their own products.

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As for the actual act of vaping, the research world is a convoluted mess of bad methodology and influence from big tobacco. While the jury is out on vaping as an entirely safe activity, the position of groups like the American Heart Association is that regardless of how bad it might be, vaping is no where near as harmful as cigarettes, and data from the CDC suggests that the availability of e-cigarettes makes people more likely to ease off smoking. The response from legislators has been either nonexistent or, in the case of bans and taxes, overly severe.

A simple solution would be moderate, common-sense legislation to prevent the inclusion of diacetyl and similarly harmful chemicals from vape juices. 

Until the vaping industry has more research and transparency, industry advocates, activists and bloggers are trying to remind everyone that even with the presence of some harmful chemicals, vaping is possibly much healthier for you than cigarettes — which also, by the way, can include diacetyl.