MENU

If you are looking to find out whether vaping causes Popcorn Lung, the short answer is no.

As UK Cancer Research plainly articulates, “There’s no good evidence that e-cigarettes could cause the lung condition called popcorn lung. There have been no confirmed cases of popcorn lung reported in people who use e-cigarettes.”

There you have it.

Why then has this correlation between Popcorn Lung and vaping entered public discourse in a way that, to some, it has become almost indisputable? Perhaps an indication of the spirit of our times, where information can spread faster than it can be proved, vaping has found this false label attached to it—and once drawn, these kinds of connections are hard to break.

In the wake of the recent cases of vaping-related illnesses, it’s important that the information that is proliferated through society around this issue is scientifically-based if we are to truly arrive at concrete answers that will move our investigations forward and ultimately serve public health interests.

Let’s start by having a look at the fast facts—what Popcorn Lung is, its causes and how it got its rather peculiar name. From there, we’ll have a look at what links, if any, exist between vaping and this condition. First things first:

What is Popcorn Lung?

So-called Popcorn Lung is the condition scientifically known as bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare degenerative lung disease that has symptoms similar to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Essentially, Popcorn Lung causes damages to the smallest airways in the lungs called bronchioles. The condition leads to inflammation which results in scarring of the lungs and, ultimately, irreversible damage.

Popcorn Lung patients may experience a host of respiratory issues, including wheezing, difficulty breathing, and painful coughing. It is also associated with extreme exhaustion and irritation of the skin, eye, mouth or nose. What’s more, it is currently incurable and can be fatal. Because it has similar symptoms to other respiratory illnesses, it can be difficult to diagnose immediately. Of course, every effort should be taken to better understand the causes of a condition this serious. It is vital that accurate information is disseminated so that falsehoods do not cause unwarranted panic and the public is aware of the inherent risks of contracting this disease.

What causes Popcorn Lung?

Popcorn Lung is caused by the inhalation of diacetyl, an organic compound with the chemical formula CH3C02. It either occurs naturally in various substances, such as alcoholic drinks or is used as an additive for flavoring of certain products. It is what gives many foods, including margarine, it’s buttery flavor.

While ingesting diacetyl through food and drink is not considered toxic, this is not the case when the chemical is inhaled. When it is heated and ingested into the lungs, it can become incredibly harmful.

Because traces of diacetyl have been found in e-cigarettes, suspicions have been aroused about whether vaping leads to this devastating condition. The mere presence of diacetyl, however, is too simplistic a correlation to draw and, as we shall see, does not take into account the many facts that have been uncovered through thorough scientific investigation of the issue.

But before we look at the link between vaping and Popcorn Lung, it is first important to understand that there is much to the name of this disease that helps us understand its origins.

Where did the name Popcorn Lung come from?

In 2007, the biggest manufacturers of microwave popcorn in the United States announced that they were working to remove a flavoring chemical from their product as it was not safe for their factory workers. As a direct link was drawn between the chemical diacetyl and the emergence of numerous cases of what has come to be known as Popcorn Lung, immediate action had to be taken to ensure that further harm was not done to employees. While the chemical was safe to eat, it was certainly not safe to inhale in the factories.

About a decade later, the term Popcorn Lung was once again thrust into the public eye—but this time for a totally different reason. As news emerged of vaping-related illnesses, particularly among younger users, the need to find the culprit was more than urgent. When researchers discovered diacetyl in vaping products, they were quick to jump to the conclusion that vaping and Popcorn Lung had to be directly linked. While this has subsequently been debunked, the thought lingers in the collective imagination.

The Link Between Vaping and Popcorn Lung

As recent vaping related deaths have become a great source of alarm for users, parents and health authorities, the hunt is on for the exact cause of these cases. Prevention, of course, will only come from a greater understanding of the source. In the mad rush for answers, some unhelpful links have been drawn between Popcorn Lung and vaping which are not founded in fact.

So where did the link between this dangerous chronic condition and vaping come about?

Essentially, traces of diacetyl are found in flavoring chemicals used in vaping products—but while this is indisputable, the link between vaping and Popcorn Lung most certainly isn’t. As reported by Health Canada, “there have been no reports of popcorn lung occurring due to vaping.”

Dispelling the Myths about Vaping and Popcorn Lung

Creating a false link between vaping and Popcorn Lung is at best unhelpful and at worst, simply dangerous. By drawing this equivalence, we steer ourselves away from finding real answers to a very real public health matter. Rather than opting for hysteria, we should choose evidence-based practice.

As the NHS’s Public Health Matters blog clearly states, the idea that e-cigarettes give you Popcorn Lung is a myth.

Here are some useful facts that help us on the quest to a greater understanding of the safety around e-cigarette usage:

  1. Exposure to diacetyl is far more likely in cigarette smoke than in vaping. In this article by Dr. Michael Siegel of the Department of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, he draws a striking comparison between diacetyl exposure from vaping versus cigarette smoking. The result? Average Diacetyl Exposure from Vaping is 750 Times Lower than from Smoking. Why this is particularly jarring is that correlations between cigarette smoking and Popcorn Lung have not been made, let alone touted as a serious health concern. Associating Popcorn Lung with vaping is, as Siegel clearly articulates, “misrepresenting the scientific evidence.” This is perhaps a case of jumping to a convenient conclusion to try to understand a more complex problem.
  2. Exposure to diacetyl is far more likely in cigarette smoke than in vaping. In this article by Dr. Michael Siegel of the Department of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, he draws a striking comparison between diacetyl exposure from vaping versus cigarette smoking. The result? Average Diacetyl Exposure from Vaping is 750 Times Lower than from Smoking. Why this is particularly jarring is that correlations between cigarette smoking and Popcorn Lung have not been made, let alone touted as a serious health concern. Associating Popcorn Lung with vaping is, as Siegel clearly articulates, “misrepresenting the scientific evidence.” This is perhaps a case of jumping to a convenient conclusion to try to understand a more complex problem.
  3. Black market vapes are where the health danger lies. The benefit of the legalization of a substance is the control that governmental bodies can place on them. Black market vapes fall beyond the bounds of health and safety regulations and can therefore not be effectively monitored. Rather than see vaping as the problem, it is the illegal vaping of unregulated substances that should be scrutinized. It is a matter of life and death that the distinction is drawn.

In Conclusion (and why it is important not to jump to them)

E-cigarettes were initially intended as a smoking cessation device. If used for this purpose, they have and will continue to be effective for many users who have found other methods to be inappropriate to them. Vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking cigarettes and, as such, is an ideal way for many people to ween themselves off cigarettes.

If you want to quit cigarette smoking and are looking to vaping as an alternative, it may just be the right one for you. Make sure that you do not opt for black market vaping options as these chemicals and devices cannot be monitored and controlled.

If we continue to spread falsities around the effects of vaping, particularly those that incorrectly associate it with Popcorn Lung, we will be sowing seeds of confusion that are not helpful to those who want to use e-cigarettes for the purpose they were originally intended for.