Flavored e-cigs and popcorn lung: Not As Fun As it Sounds

Cotton Candy, Tutti Frutti, Cupcake, Oatmeal Cookie… Diacetyl? The chemicals used to give e-cigarettes these and other fruity flavors can cause severe conditions such as popcorn lung – which gets its rather deceivingly charming name from the fact that it affected workers who inhaled artificial butter fumes at microwave popcorn factories – according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers. Similarly noxious chemicals acetoin and 2,3-pentanedione – the latter of which has caused lung and brain damage in rats – were also found in 47 of 51 tested flavors. But then what can you expect with flavor names like Alien Blood? Was Cancer Sunrise not available?

The researchers, whose findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives, introduced e-cigs into a sealed chamber connected to a device that draw air through the electronic cigarette for 8 seconds at a time followed by 15-30 second rest periods between draws. For some reason I’m picturing Lionel Hutz’s toy smoking monkey (“Look... he's taking another puff!”). Anyway, the scientists analyzed the air streams and found that “one of three flavoring chemicals was found in 92 percent of the e-cigarettes we sampled and these chemicals are of interest because of what we know about the associations of inhaling these chemicals and severe, irreversible lung disease that occurred in popcorn workers over a decade ago,” as lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Joseph Allen told CBS News.

This study may just be the tip of the iceberg – diacetyl was found in 47 flavors, acetoin in 46, and 2,3-pentanedione in 23, but there are over 7,000 types of flavored e-cigs and e-juices (nicotine-containing liquid used in refillable devices). Moreover, flavoring chemicals have been under fire since the early 2000’s, when reports of an irreversible respiratory condition – called bronchiolitis obliterans – among workers at a microwave-popcorn processing plant came to light. “However, diacetyl and other related flavoring chemicals are used in many other flavors beyond butter-flavored popcorn, including fruit flavors, alcohol flavors, and, we learned in our study, candy-flavored e-cigarettes,” Allen said. Although the flavorings used in popcorn were on the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list, this declaration of safety applied exclusively to ingestion and not to exposure via inhalation.

And if that weren’t bad enough, “in addition to containing varying levels of the addictive substance nicotine, (e-cigarettes) also contain other cancer-causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and as our study shows, flavoring chemicals that can cause lung damage,” co-author professor David Christiani said. It would appear that e-cigs and flavoring chemicals are an even worse pairing than Tim Burton and Johnny Depp – and like the terrible movies those two churn out on a regular basis, e-cigarette flavors may be especially appealing to children and teenagers. The CDC estimates that 2.5 million teens use e-cigarettes – “a startling number of kids,” as Allen put it. According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics early this year, e-cigs are as easily available online to children as medical supplies are at Discount Medical Supplies (though that’s the only thing the two have in common). Furthermore, the FDA has currently no jurisdiction over e-cigarettes and related products.

Some people believe – or are led to believe, depending on who you ask – that e-cigs can help them quit smoking actual cigarettes (you know, the kind that taste like a real cigarette should taste; that is like burnt sawdust), while others are convinced they are a gateway drug (will somebody please think of the yaddy, yaddy, yadda). But if quitting smoking is what people are concerned about, why not try a good ol’ fashioned nicotine patch or some nicotine gum?

Related: Smoke two and call me in the morning? Smoking to quit