Science

Does Vaping Cause Popcorn Lungs?

Online and printed mass media is full of articles where vaping is correlated with permanent lung damage. Is it really true?

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Vaping Popcorn Lungs
lindsayfox / Pixabay

What is popcorn lung?

While the nickname "popcorn lung" may sound rather fun than threateningly, it's a serious lung disease. A formal term for it is Bronchiolitis Obliterans. This medical condition causes a narrowing of the tiniest and deepest airways within the lungs. It can bring on many symptoms, from coughing and wheezing to shortness of breath and fatigue.

Bronchiolitis Obliterans is a rare incurable disease. There is no cure for it, and it is considered life-threatening. A biopsy is the only sure way to diagnosis popcorn lungs.

How did it get its name?

The first time it caught public attention when in 2004 when former workers of a microwave popcorn plant in Missouri developed bronchiolitis obliterans. This disease has been called "popcorn worker's lung."

What causes Bronchiolitis Obliterans?

Further investigation found out that the cause of the illness was Diacetyl. This chemical was being generally used to make popcorn butter-flavored. It’s also naturally produced in alcoholic beverages and is used as a food additive.

This flavoring agent is not harmful to consume. But when inhaled, it can contribute to popcorn lung development.

What’s the deal with vaping?

Harvard School of Public Health conducted a raucous study. Researchers investigated the chemicals used in vaping tested the chemical ingredients in e-cigarette liquids in an attempt to identify any associated health risks. They discovered that many of them contained Diacetyl. In fact, 39 out of the 51 vape flavors contained this potentially dangerous chemical. It was found mostly in candy and fruit flavors.

The findings suggest that exposure to diacetyl through electronic cigarettes can potentially cause significant harm to vapers’ lungs.

Is there a safe side?

Reports that diacetyl was detected in some e-liquids made vapers worry about their health. There are 7,700 flavors and 460 brands of e-cigs on the market right now. People wanted to know how to avoid diacetyl in e-cigs.

While the media is trying to create sensational news making a big deal out of the research, they only manage to cause unnecessary panic.

Once the risks associated with diacetyl came to light, most e-liquid manufacturers in the USA refused from adding this potentially harmful flavoring chemical to their products. And while some vape liquid brands keep using diacetyl and producing substandard e-liquid, most companies have understood that it puts business in a disadvantaged position.

Experienced companies have turned the situation into a marketing hook by marking their vape products as free of diacetyl. Some of them have established a range of checks and quality control actions. These include careful production processes and independent laboratory testing. Chemical analysis results are used to promote and advertise items to health-conscious vapors.

To get a safe product, look for a brand that guarantees safety. If you’re vaping an e-liquid which has a diacetyl-free assurance, then you don’t have to worry about things like popcorn lung.

Will vaping give you popcorn lung?

I wouldn’t be frank with my readers if I didn’t say that safe measures e-cig companies take can be just a trick. I’ve heard a news report about two manufacturers that labeled their diacetyl-containing products as diacetyl-free.

Despite the worrisome health concerns related to vaping, many traditional smokers choose e-cigs as a safer alternative. A new Public Health England (PHE) e-cigarette evidence review proves this decision right.

Independent tobacco experts claim that vaping poses only a small part of the risks of traditional smoking. Moreover, switching completely from smoking to vaping has substantial health benefits. The researchers concluded that E-cigs are at least 95% less harmful than tobacco.

Though the popularity of vaping continues to increase, there is very limited information on their potential health effects. There are no published studies about the long-term health effects of any kind of vaping. As of 2017, no vapors have ever been diagnosed with popcorn lung.

While vapers all around the world were hugely alarmed with a possible correlation between vaping habit and popcorn lung, it quickly became clear that things had been exaggerated.

Your e-cig will put you at a far lower risk of getting sick at popcorn lung comparing to a traditional cig. Even a traditional smoker is unlikely to be diagnosed with this disease. The media inflated the results of Harvard study.

Is vaping really safer than smoking in terms of the risks of popcorn lung development?

Diacetyl was also found in conventional cigarettes. According to different sources, they contain 100 or even 750 times more diacetyl than vaping products. But smoking cigarettes, regardless of the higher levels of diacetyl has not been shown to provoke popcorn lung.

The facts speak for themselves. If traditional smokers who consume much more diacetyl than e-cig fans have never ended up with popcorn lung, then the chances that a vaper could are slim to none.

Let’s imagine the following situation. A person makes the switch from smoking regular tobacco cigarettes for many years to vaping e-cigarettes. Some time later, he/she is diagnosed with popcorn lung. How to find out whether the cause relates to their smoking or vaping habits?

Unfortunately, medics haven’t done enough studies on the lungs of smokers who had various obstructive lung diseases. So, the negative effect of diacetyl can’t be fully excluded.

Some of the Missouri factory workers smoked. However, it was defined that it was the chemical from the factory that had caused bronchiolitis obliterans, not the chemical from cigarettes.

Vaping is relatively new in comparison to smoking. There are many things we don't know about it. While the dangers of smoking are proven and well-known, this is not the case with vaping. Its consequences remain a source of debate. All we know for sure is that vaping is safer than smoking.

About the Author:

Phyllis Baker is the blogger specializing in health issues and addiction treatment. She manages public relations for the quitting smoking community.