Bursting the Popcorn Lung Bubble

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healthy alternatives to smoking

Widely considered the healthy alternative to smoking, vaping’s leg-up in popularity has also caused it to be the focus of some cynics. Most recently, the claim is that vaping juice contains a chemical that will cause you to develop a disease called popcorn lung and is, therefore, just as bad as smoking. Let’s take a fine-toothed comb to this supposed evidence.

What is Popcorn Lung anyway?
The term originated from a report conducted by Missouri Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control during 2000-2002 discussing a pattern of disease seen in workers from a microwave popcorn factory. 8 of 97 workers had started developing respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and a persistent cough.  They were found to have developed an obstructive pulmonary disease –  similar to the lung disease seen in cigarette smoking but most similar to a condition called bronchiolitis obliterans.

Unlike in occupational asthma, there is no obvious temporal relationship between the disease development, severity and duration of exposure in popcorn factory; this made finding the connection difficult in the beginning.

After much research, the causative agent was identified as the aerosolized flavorant, diacetyl. Diacetyl is described as a chemical called a ketone that is known for its strong butter flavor.  Although originally deemed a safe ingredient by the FDA, it was regulated on the safety of consumption, not prolonged inhalation at high concentrations. It is a known ingredient in cigarettes and an out-going feature in e-liquids.

How does this affect Vaping?
In 2015, Harvard conducted a study that looked to establish the presence of diacetyl and 2 other chemicals in 51 of a possible 7000+ vaping juices or e-liquids via convenience sampling. As many other reports have cited, they found that 75% of them (39 of 51) to contain diacetyl. However, convenience sampling means that the flavors were chosen without proper randomization or algorithm – allowing for elements of bias. Additionally, their aim was to merely identify the presence of diacetyl; when quantified, the vast majority of juices had levels of diacetyl below qualification limits.

Farsalinos sampled 159 juices from 36 different manufacturers and retailers sold across 7 countries in 2014; as well as researching further into dissolving known concentrations of diacetyl into the juices. Again, 75% of the sample was found to have traces of aerosolized diacetyl. However, Farsalinos quantified the exposure and found all sample exposures to be within the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health safety limits.

Can Vaping Still Be Considered a Safe Alternative?
In Farsalinos’ study, the exposure to diacetyl from e-cigarettes was also found to be 110 times lower to the exposure from a single tobacco cigarette – solidifying its role as a safe alternative to smoking.

Together, Allen, Fujioka and Shibamoto quantified the diacetyl exposure specifically comparing e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes. Allen et al fond an approximate daily exposure of diacetyl of 9 micrograms per e-cigarette cartridge; Harvard’s study finding a maximum exposure of 239 micrograms. Fujioka and Shibamoto found the approximate exposure for a smoker to be 6718 micrograms. At a maximum, there is a 28 times greater exposure with cigarette smoking; on average, it reaches almost 750 times.

The use of any substance comes with risks but the risk posed by e-cigarettes is significantly less than that of cigarettes and even microwave popcorn fumes. The foundation of vape culture is the movement toward healthier living – a safe and viable alternative to smoking. The risk associated with vaping will fall even further given that diacetyl is not an integral ingredient and therefore easily omissible; and that vaping stores, like Snake Eye Vape, already offering diacetyl free e-juice.

Last update: Dec 22, 2016

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