By Leigh Oates
Until now, many vapers have been happily vaping away, without much concern over the contents of their E-Liquids. After all, E-Liquid is made from simple, safe, household ingredients — it’s gotta be better than the 7,000+ chemicals in cigarettes, right? As long as the juice is made in a clean fashion — there isn’t much to worry about.
But then diacetyl reared its ugly head. Although knowledge of the chemical is not new in vaping circles, after all, informed vapers know that electronic cigarette researcher Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos warned us about the chemical back in 2014, with a study published in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research. The study recommended then that diacetyl and acetyl propionyl (AP) be removed from E-Liquids, as they are an avoidable risk. The diacetyl story broke to the public in December 2015 when a study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that revealed the chemical’s presence was in up to 75 percent of vapor liquids.
But, why the concern? What potential harm can diacetyl cause? Diacetyl, when inhaled, can cause bronchiolitis obliterans, popularly known as popcorn lung. Inhalations of high concentrations of diacetyl can cause obstructive lung disease, which can be very severe. With popcorn lung, the bronchioles of the lung become scarred and constricted, blocking the movement of air.
This was bad news for vapers who were turning to e-cigarettes as a way to reduce harm from cigarette smoking. If vapor liquids contained ingredients that would damage the lungs as well, then why not just smoke?
A Daily Caller article then responded, pointing out important facts that had not been discussed by the Harvard report, and charging the study with selectively revealing information about diacetyl content in other substances — namely, tobacco cigarettes. Dr. Farsalinos has argued that cigarette tobacco also contains high levels of diacetyl — even higher than those found in most vapor liquids. He presented data showing tobacco to have much higher levels of diacetyl — on average 110 times higher compared to the E-Liquid samples he tested. Additionally, he observed that the threshold for the diacetyl content in the Harvard study was very low — inhaling levels of diacetyl this low were unlikely to contribute to popcorn lung. Cigarettes have not been linked to the disease, and if cigarettes contain higher levels of diacetyl than e-cigs, than how can we reasonably conclude that E-Liquids cause the disease?
Even so, the vape industry had to respond. If harm reduction is truly the game here, when faced with this news, manufacturers had to act. E-Liquid producers then turned to their flavoring suppliers with questions. Some suppliers claim directly on their website that diacetyl is not added to any of their flavorings. Others have gone even farther to remove other questionable chemicals AP and acetoin from their formulations.
How can E-Liquid companies handle the diacetyl question? Some companies try their best to have no trace of diacetyl or other known harmful chemicals in the juices. Their juices are tested by third-party laboratories and the test results are often proudly posted on the company website. Other companies
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have chosen to be transparent — acknowledging that the liquids may have some concentrations of diacetyl, AP, or acetoin — and that there is some risk taken by the consumer. Those warnings acknowledge the link between diacetyl and lung disease, while also noting that no adequate testing has been done on diacetyl in electronic cigarettes. After all, it has been pointed out that the workers who developed popcorn lung were breathing in high concentrations of pure flavorings at extremely high temps, and also that the levels of diacetyl in electronic cigarettes were less than diacetyl levels in tobacco cigarettes. Other companies have not said much either way — and still others have been accused of misleading their customers.
What is the best policy for E-Liquid manufacturers? As Dr. Farsalinos has argued, transparency by the juice companies and removal of the chemicals are the only two viable ways to move forward. When companies hedge or refuse to answer tough questions about their E-Liquids, they seem uninformed at best and deceptive at worst. And of course, falsifying test results or making false claims is a completely unacceptable practice.
How do vapers move on from diacetyl? Vapers should ask for test results as well as informing themselves of the risks associated with the product. But since vapers are moving away from the clearly toxic habit of smoking to a clearly less harmful habit of vaping — which no one has claimed to be totally safe, the risks associated with diacetyl seem minimal. Especially since an informed vaper can easily avoid it by choosing diacetyl free liquids. In the future, more extensive testing of E-Liquids and flavorings will be the norm. As electronic cigarettes continue to be studied, we hope that they will be studied in a way that is fair and balanced, not in a way that aims to stifle the technology.
By and large, vapers are health conscious individuals. Many of them chose vaping in the first place as a way to move towards a healthy lifestyle. As research identifies the E-Liquid flavors that have the least health risks, and companies adapt to the changes, vaping will continue to be a good choice from smokers looking to quit combustible tobacco.
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