Harvard Study Links E-cigarettes To Incurable Lung Disease Called “Popcorn Lung”

E-cigarettes are growing increasingly popular and are often mentioned as a “safer” alternative to traditional cigarettes because they contain far fewer chemicals that cause smoking-related diseases than their nicotine-filled counterparts.

However, a recent study released by the Harvard School of Public Health, reveals that this doesn’t mean the electronic smoking devices are free from harmful chemicals. According to their study published in December of 2015,  75 percent of flavored e-cigarettes and their refill liquids were found to contain Diacetyl, “a flavoring chemical linked to cases of severe respiratory disease”.

Diacetyl is a chemical that has been already associated with “Popcorn Lung”, a debilitating respiratory disease known as bronchiolitis obliterans. It is named Popcorn Lung because it first appeared in workers who inhaled artificial butter flavor in microwave popcorn processing facilities. Popcorn Lung causes scarring in the tiny air sacs in the lungs which leads to excessive coughing and shortness of breath which gets worse over time and is irreversible.

The Harvard study tested 51 types of flavored e-cigarettes and liquids sold by leading brands for the presence of diacetyl, acetoin, and 2,3-pentanedione (two related flavoring compounds that may pose a respiratory hazard in the workplace according to the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association).

Each e-cigarette was inserted into a sealed chamber attached to a lab-built device and their air stream was then analyzed.  At least one of the three chemicals was detected in 47 of the 51 flavors tested.

“Recognition of the hazards associated with inhaling flavoring chemicals started with ‘Popcorn Lung’ over a decade ago. 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,” said lead author Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science in a Harvard press release.

The scientists said that although there is awareness of the health hazards that nicotine poses, there isn’t as much research into the other chemicals contained in e-cigarettes, which is worrying to the scientists.

“Since most of the health concerns about e-cigarettes have focused on nicotine, there is still much we do not know about e-cigarettes,” said study co-author David Christiani, Elkan Blout Professor of Environmental Genetics.  “In addition to containing varying levels of the addictive substance nicotine, they also contain other cancer-causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and as our study shows, flavoring chemicals that can cause lung damage.”

E-cigarettes continue to increase in popularity around the globe, but there is a lack of scientific data on their potentially negative health effects. They are not currently regulated in the U.S but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing to include e-cigarettes under its authority to regulate certain tobacco and nicotine-containing products.

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