Flavoured e-cigarettes may contain chemicals linked to severe lung disease

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E-cigarette smoking
A man smokes an electronic cigarette vaporizer, also known as an e-cigarette, in Toronto, August 7, 2015. Many of the world's junior miners are laying down their picks and shovels to start new ventures ranging from egg exporting to e-cigarette company, as they as try to survive a crash in metals prices by shifting away from exploration. Picture taken on August 7, 2015. Reuters/Mark Blinch

Using e-cigarettes has been found to potentially promote serious health risks, with the discovery of the link between inhaling a flavouring chemical widely used in e-liquid flavours and a serious lung disease. The chemical called diacetyl was found to be associated with the disease known as “Popcorn Lung.”

Popcorn Lung is the common term for the debilitating respiratory disease bronchiolitis obliterans. It has been known to first appear in workers who inhaled artificial butter flavour in microwave popcorn processing facilities.

Diacetyl is commonly used in flavoured e-liquids, particularly in dessert flavours including caramel or vanilla. Researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that diacetyl was also available in less-obvious flavours, such as watermelon, menthol and even plain tobacco-flavoured e-juices.

Two “sister chemicals” of diacetyl known as acetyl propionyl and acetoin were also found to potentially be harmful. The study was published on Tuesday in Environmental Health Perspectives.

“A lot of people think it ends with butter flavours,” said lead author Joseph Allen, a Harvard researcher in environmental health. “But in fact if you look at where diacetyl and other flavouring compounds are used, it’s a really eye-opening list of flavourings that you wouldn’t think it’d be in.”

Researchers analysed 51 unique flavours of e-liquid to see the presence of diacetyl, acetyl propionyl and acetoin. They have found that at least one of the three chemicals appears in 47 of the 51 flavours.

Diacetyl was detected higher than the laboratory limit of detection in 39 flavours, while 46 flavours contain acetoin and acetyl propionyl was detected in 23 of the flavours.

"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 co-author David Christiani, a 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, flavouring chemicals that can cause lung damage."

Allen noted e-cigarettes are currently unregulated, and consumers are less likely to get accurate information about the chemicals in their e-juice. The lack of scientific studies on the effects of e-cigarettes also contributes to the health risks.

“The consumer doesn’t have the information to make informed decisions,” Allen told Motherboard. “The flavouring industry is giving warnings to workers who are handling these chemicals and have the potential to inhale them, but we don’t see these warnings given to users of flavoured e-cigarettes.”

The researchers suggest, due to the association between diacetyl and the disease bronchiolitis obliterans, urgent action is needed to further evaluate the potentially widespread exposure to the chemicals through flavoured e-cigarettes.

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