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Chemicals in E-Cigarette Flavors Might Lead to“Popcorn Lung”


Image credit: Flydragon/Shutterstock1

At present, there are more than 7,000 electronic cigarettes being sold on the market, including different flavors such as candy, cocktail and fruit. However, although it is reported that   E-cigs are “95% less harmful than tobacco,” when analyzing flavoring chemicals, scientists have researchers found compounds previously related to lung disease in various kinds of flavored E-cigs. Such findings were released in the latest edition of Environmental Health Perspectives.

As early as in 2000s, it was reported that inhalation exposure to the flavoring chemical diacetyl in food products was closely linked with a serious disease which was named “popcorn lung” afterwards. At a microwave popcorn processing plant, workers were exposed to easily observed dust and particles – as well as vapors which deliver a strong buttery odor – when oil, salt, and flavorings were blended into big, heated tanks. Multiple factory workers developed a respiratory illness that bears resemblance of bronchiolitis obliterans. Its sufferers would have some obvious symptoms like asthma, coughing, and labored breathing. It could cause irreversible loss of lung function. If its malfunction was severe, a transplant would be only possible treatment.

Although E-cigs are so popular that just in the U.S, nearly $3 billion was spent on them, there have been not so much work done on their flavoring chemicals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration are not responsible for regulating E-cigs. Therefore typically much attention concerning their hazards is given to nicotine exposure, second-hand exposure as well as their potential in a substitute of cigarette.

For the time being, in order to investigate flavoring chemicals in E-cigs, Joseph Allen and his team at HarvardUniversity have made an analysis of the air stream discharged from 51 kinds of flavored E-cigs sold by various famous brands. In addition to diacetyl, the team also studied 2,3-pentanedione and acetoin. To their surprise, they have found these three chemicals in butter flavoring, as well as other flavors such as butterscotch, caramel, pina colada, and strawberry. These E-cig cartridges are sold with brands like Alien Blood, Blue Water Punch, Cotton Candy, Cupcake, Double Apple Hookah, Fruit Squirts, Oatmeal Cookie, Tutti Frutti, Waikiki Watermelon, and so on.

From the tests done by the team, at least one of the three flavoring chemicals in 47 of the 51 flavors have been found. Diacetyl was confirmed in 39 of the flavors, while 2,3-pentanedione and acetoin were found in 23 and 46 of the flavors, respectively.

Since there is close link between diacetyl and severe respiratory diseases, the team has strongly recommended that  “urgent action” should be taken for further evaluation of its potentially widespread exposure via flavored E-cigs.