Science and Tech


E-Cigarette Chemical Linked To 'Popcorn Lung'

A harmful chemical flavoring found in e-cigarettes might be linked to a condition known as "popcorn lung."
Posted at 4:13 PM, Mar 30, 2017

Nicotine might not be the only health hazard tied to e-cigarettes. A group of scientists at Harvard University released a study that said some e-cigarettes contain a harmful flavoring chemical that's been linked to a pretty gross lung disease.

Its formal name is bronchiolitis obliterans. Its nickname is "popcorn lung." It's an irreversible respiratory condition that scars the tiny air sacs in the lungs.

It was discovered in 2000 after employees at a Missouri factory inhaled butter flavoring for microwave popcorn daily. Workers developed several symptoms, including wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.

Experts later learned the butter flavor contained a chemical called diacetyl, and that chemical has been associated with "popcorn lung." 

While studying flavoring chemicals for e-cigarettes, Harvard scientists found diacetyl and two other harmful compounds — 2,3-pentanedione and acetoin — in e-cigarette flavored liquids they studied. (Video via The New Yorker)

Because many states still sell e-cigs to minors, researchers purposefully tested flavors "with [the] potential appeal to young people such as cotton candy, Fruit Squirts and cupcake." (Video via CNN)

Forty-seven of the 51 flavors tested contained at least one of the three potentially harmful chemicals. But the levels of such chemicals in regular cigarettes are much higher. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers diacetyl safe for consumption at low levels.

This video includes images from Getty Images.

Correction: A previous version of this article said diacetyl could cause popcorn lung, when the CDC reports an association between the chemical and the disease. It also neglected to include information about diacetyl presence in other foods and traditional cigarettes.