Popcorn Lung and Vaping? Is there a connection?
Vaping – the subject of many disputes, but not enough in-depth scientific studies. To someone, it might appear that laws regarding vaping are being brought more efficiently than researcher these laws should be based on. Indeed, as of 2015, vaping is the target of many assumptions, and some examinations regarding those assumptions are ongoing. In 2015, the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed that harmful chemicals associated with the disease known as the “popcorn lung” are present in many types of e-cigarettes’ flavorings. Of the 51 flavored e-cigarettes tested, flavoring chemicals were found in 47, and diacetyl specifically in 39 samples.
The problem lies exactly in diacetyl, the compound resembling butter flavor, from which, in a way, this disease have gotten its name.
Popularly known as popcorn lung, this disease is medically registered as bronchiolitis obliterans (obliterative bronchiolitis). So, what does this have to do with popcorn lungs? It all started in the small city of Jasper, Missouri, and its Gilster-Mary Lee microwave popcorn plant. Even though the condition was first time clearly described in 1981, the popcorn lung first came to public attention in the early 2000s. It was when eight former employees of the factory were diagnosed with the disease due to diacetyl found in popcorn flavoring. Afterward, Missouri Department of Health with the help of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health took steps to address working conditions and work practices that place workers at risk.
Now when we have the name, let us dive into what this disease actually is, and what are its symptoms. The disease is defined as an obstruction of the bronchioles. Bronchioles are the smallest passageways in lungs by which air passes through the nose or mouth to the air sacs. As the popcorn lungs prevent proper transmission of air, this leads to the inflammation of the mentioned airways. This is where the symptoms unfold, the most common ones being dry cough, shortness of breath and wheezing. As it appears, symptoms are similar to those of the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Diacetyl, butter flavored troublemaker
As some vaping liquid brands and vaping related merchandise manufacturers use diacetyl in their flavors, this fact immediately brought a new host of people opposing any form of vaping. Like all the laws equating vaping and smoking were not enough, this certainly added some oil to the fire (or in this case – butter).
Besides being a byproduct of fermentation that adds that specific aroma to butter, buttermilk, and sour cream, diacetyl can also be found in candy, and some wines, like Chardonnay. And while eating it is found harmless, inhaling it is a whole different story, especially since diacetyl is usually found in e-cig flavors based on candy or fruit. These vibrant and hip flavors are in most cases used to attract younger customers.
It is not a wonder then that vaping has found new enemies based on this fact. This was mostly thanks to the study from the mentioned journal from the beginning of our story. Nevertheless, we did our homework for you and explained some of the vape flavors. And, if your child is a vaper, do not worry – we have also respectfully gathered some information on vaping and parenting so that your youngster can remain safe and healthy.
Vaping and popcorn lung still understudied
Despite the success and reach of it, some aspects of this study did not seem fully valid to other scientists. Dr Farsalinos, known for his reconsiderations of studies condemning e-cigarettes, had his word on it as well.
As a sort of a counter study, Farsalinos and his team of researchers examined 159 samples from 36 manufacturers and retailers in 7 countries. More than a half of the examined samples had even lower concentrations of diacetyl than defined safety limits. Some of them were even tested to have from 10 to 100 times lower concentrations of it compared with smoking. However, certain samples contained levels higher than the safety limits.
The concerning level of diacetyl is found in large proportion mostly in sweet-flavored e-cig liquids. As Farsalinos points, proper measures should be taken by EC liquid manufacturers and flavoring suppliers to eliminate these hazards from the products without necessarily limiting the availability of sweet flavors. This is the goal for which all sides have to work towards United. This way, health, economy, environment, and different communities can prosper at the same time instead of disputing over which side is right and which one is wrong. Additionally, the presence of diacetyl in e-cigarettes was known even before the studies were published. Regardless, if you are looking for the best e-juice, you can check this blog post.
Many vaping communities are concerned by all this. While most vapers still consider vaping healthier (or rather, less harmful) than smoking, not every vaper is content with diacetyl in their favorite product. That is why some companies, manufacturers, and brands are constantly conducting tests, or even excluding diacetyl from production. However, this is not as effective, as it requires specific research parameters not everyone is able to afford, especially smaller producers. Despite this, one thing is well elaborated – that only constant inhalation of high concentration of diacetyl leads to popcorn lungs. Having on mind its symptoms, it is easy, without further studies on e–cigs, to mistake popcorn lungs for COPD, caused by smoking.
Sometimes it is difficult to determine if any recurring symptoms are a result of popcorn lung or the development of COPD from smoking. Here are a few signs and symptoms of each to help pinpoint the issue:
- Mucus producing cough with clear, white, yellow, or green mucus
- Build-up of mucus during the night, which leads to a need for clearing each morning
- Wheezing or shortness of breath, especially when performing physical activities
- Chest tightness
- Frequent respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis
- Low energy
- Unusual swelling in feet, ankles, and/or legs
- Dry cough with no mucus
- Wheezing or shortness of breath, especially when performing physical activities
- Rapid breathing
- Low energy/exhaustion
- Recurring or continual irritation of skin, eyes, mouth, or nose from chemicals
Some of the symptoms are similar for both, but each ailment has its own unique traits that can help one make a diagnosis. If a smoker or vaper is worried about their condition or has developed any alarming symptoms such as the ones described above, it is important to speak with a doctor right away so they can begin treatment before the issues get worse.
The first step in avoiding diacetyl is to stop smoking. As mentioned above, cigarettes pose a much higher threat in terms of causing popcorn lung than vaporizers do. Next, vapers need to understand that only high amounts and long-term exposure have been linked to the development of popcorn lung. While more studies are needed to estimate what the “safe” amounts are, most casual vapers won’t need to worry too much about the condition. Nonetheless, some vapers may still want to completely eliminate diacetyl from their vaping experiences as a precaution.
Not all vaping companies will list their e-juice ingredients on their site, as they want to keep their proprietary blends somewhat secret. However, there are certain flavors that have been found to contain more diacetyl than others, which concerned vapers may want to avoid. These flavors include fruity, creamy, and otherwise sweet varieties. If you’d like to continue enjoying these flavors, look for companies that make diacetyl-free e-juice with third party testing verification. Be wary of companies that use acetoin as a replacement for diacetyl though, as this can transform into diacetyl under the right conditions. Many vape companies are starting to eliminate diacetyl from their ingredients list already, so vapers may discover diacetyl-free e-juice easier to find than ever.
In the beginning, vaporizers were created as a safer and healthier alternative to smoking. Studies and trends in the past few decades have proven that they have succeeded in their mission, although there is always room for improvement. The FDA began their control over nicotine and the smoking industry in 2009 and have pushed for various limitations and quality assurance standards over the years since then. However, 2022 could bring big changes to cigarette and vape makers alike with the FDA’s proposed action of limiting nicotine levels to non-addictive levels, among other things. Luckily, companies have a few years to prepare and conduct research into their products before this new wave of regulation hits. Whatever regulations occur in the future, companies that have their consumers’ best interests at heart will take them in stride. Many companies have been conducting research of their own for years ensuring highest safety and quality of their products. The vaping industry started with user’s overall health in mind, and that’s what the focus will always be on.