E-Cigarettes and “Popcorn Lung”


This morning a couple of my friends were concerned by an article they saw going around that said e-cigarettes cause a condition called “popcorn lung.” This concern came with the caveat that they had not yet snoped this information or anything, so I decided to look into it.

Bronchiolitis obliterans, aka “popcorn lung,” is a condition that involves inflammation, scarring, and therefore constriction of the tiniest air sacs in the lungs, known as bronchioles, and leads to coughing and shortness of breath. It is irreversible and, especially if left untreated, it can be fatal. It is a common complication for lung transplants, but it can also be caused by inhaling certain chemical irritants.

The chemical irritant from whence the nickname “popcorn lung” is derived is called diacetyl. Diacytal is a buttery-tasting chemical that is a natural byproduct of fermentation as well as an artificially-produced flavoring. It is what gives butter, cultured dairy, some beers and chardonnays, margarines, and, yes, microwaved popcorn its intense, buttery flavors. It is safe to eat, but dangerous to inhale. The condition was first observed in a group of popcorn factory workers, hence the nickname, although the CDC now prefers the broader term “Flavorings-Related Lung Disease.”

Despite the well-established dangers of inhaling diacytal, e-cig companies keep putting it into their products. Diacytal is currently used to flavor many, many e-cigs. One study found diacytal present in 39 of 51 e-cig flavors sampled. So, you know, don’t use flavored e-cigs! E-cigarettes are about to finally come under the purview of the FDA, so perhaps this won’t be an issue in the future, but that certainly remains to be seen; given that e-cig manufacturers must simply prove their products are safer than regular cigarettes, and regular cigarettes contain even more diacytal than e-cigs, a ban is not at all assured.

You seriously shouldn’t be puffing any e-cigs, since there are several other carcinogenic or otherwise nasty chemicals that have been found in them, including carcinogens like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde and other respiratory irritants acrolein. The fact that e-cigarettes (usually) contain less of these harmful ingredients than regular cigarettes by no mean makes them safe. But you knew that already, didn’t you?