By Dr. Mercola
Diacetyl is an artificial flavor that's most well known for adding a buttery taste to microwave popcorn. Its been linked to respiratory damage, including inflammation and permanent scarring of the airways, dubbed "popcorn lung," in workers at a microwave popcorn plant.1
If you smoke e-cigarettes, there's a good chance you're doing so in order to reduce your health risks compared to smoking tobacco cigarettes. But, you should know that even e-cigarettes come with risks, including exposure to the "popcorn lung" chemical diacetyl and other chemicals with every puff.
'Popcorn Lung' Flavoring Chemical Found Widely in E-Cigarettes
There are over 7,000 e-cigarette flavors on the market, and Harvard researchers recently selected 51 of them to determine their contents. The flavors chosen were specifically selected for testing because they were deemed to be appealing to youth.
Nearly all of the flavors (47 out of 51) contained flavoring chemicals. Diacetyl, for instance, was detected in 39 of the 51 flavors tested.
Simply avoiding "buttery" sounding flavors is not enough if you're looking to avoid it, as the chemical was also detected in fruit-flavored, alcohol-flavored, and candy-flavored e-cigarettes.
Other chemicals, including acetoin and 2,3-pentanedione (also known as acetylpropionyl), which are chemically similar to diacetyl, were found in 46 of the products tested. The researchers noted in Environmental Health Perspectives:2
"Due to the associations between diacetyl, bronchiolitis obliterans, and other severe respiratory diseases observed in workers, urgent action is recommended to further evaluate this potentially widespread exposure via flavored e-cigarettes."
Earlier this year, separate research detected diacetyl or propionyl in 74 percent of the sweet e-cigarette liquids tested.3
Among those that contained diacetyl, close to half would expose e-cigarette users to levels that exceed workplace limits designed to protect workers from the chemical's hazardous effects.4
Further, reading labels of e-cigarette flavors cannot guarantee protection, as they don't always disclose all the ingredients in the product. The Harvard researchers told NBC News:5
"Two companies explicitly stated that their products do not contain diacetyl in written communication, yet in our testing we did find diacetyl in their product."
Highly Reactive Free Radicals Found in E-Cigarette Aerosols
E-cigarettes are widely believed to be a "safe" alternative to smoking when in fact accumulating research shows they, too, contain health-harming additives and ingredients that are inhaled and absorbed by your body (and those around you).
Whether or not e-cigarettes are actually "healthier" than tobacco cigarettes remains to be seen. By some accounts, they may even be worse. As reported by Prevent Disease:6
"Some experts are comparing replacing tobacco with e-cigarettes to heroin users switching to the painkiller methadone. The replacement may have its own risks, but is it safer, probably not."
E-cigarettes produce aerosols, which are liquid particles suspended in air, instead of smoke. Researchers recently tested these aerosols and found the presence of highly reactive free radicals.7
In cigarette smoke, highly reactive free radicals are associated with cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Researcher John P. Richie Jr., professor of Public Health Sciences and Pharmacology, told Prevent Disease:
"The levels of radicals that we're seeing are more than what you might get from a heavily air-polluted area but less than what you might find in cigarette smoke …
The identification of these radicals in the aerosols means that we can't just say e-cigarettes are safe because they don't contain tobacco. They are potentially harmful. Now we have to find out what the harmful effects are."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also detected a potentially deadly antifreeze chemical called diethylene glycol in an electronic cigarette cartridge, along with tobacco-specific nitrosamines, which are linked to cancer.8
Secondhand E-Cigarette Smoke Contains Toxic Metals
As with tobacco cigarettes, just being around those who "vape," the term used for e-cigarette smoking, could pose health risks. In a 2014 study by researchers from USC Viterbi, e-cigarettes were found to have 10-fold fewer carcinogenic particles in their vapor relative to smoke from conventional cigarettes.
However, the e-cigarettes emitted higher levels of certain metals, including nickel, zinc, and silver.9 "Some of these metals are extremely toxic even in very low amounts," the study's lead researcher noted,10 adding in a statement:11
"The metal particles likely come from the cartridge of the e-cigarette devices themselves – which opens up the possibility that better manufacturing standards for the devices could reduce the quantity of metals in the smoke.
Studies of this kind are necessary for implementing effective regulatory measures. E-cigarettes are so new, there just isn't much research available on them yet."
There have been other studies to detect toxic metals, including nanoparticles, in e-cigarette vapor, however. One study found metals including tin, copper, nickel and silver, silicate beads, and nanoparticles.12
In some cases, such as the tin particles, the amounts were greater than you might be exposed to from smoking a conventional cigarette. Since metals build up in your body over time, symptoms may be attributed to other causes and people often don't realize they have been affected by metals until it's too late.
A Concerning Number of Teens Are Taking Up Vaping
E-cigarettes, which have only been around for less than a decade, have already amassed a larger following, with an estimated 10 percent of U.S. adults and 13 percent of high school students currently "vaping."13 E-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014.14
Currently, e-cigarettes are unregulated, which means the more than 450 brands on the market are sold with no labeling or testing requirements.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently considering extending its regulatory powers over cigarettes to include e-cigarette devices.15 Mitch Zeller, J.D., director of FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, said:
"In today's rapidly evolving tobacco marketplace, the surge in youth use of novel products like e-cigarettes forces us to confront the reality that the progress we have made in reducing youth cigarette smoking rates is being threatened …
These staggering increases in such a short time underscore why FDA intends to regulate these additional products to protect public health."
Aside from the inherent health risks from the e-cigarettes and flavorings, the devices may also serve as a gateway to tobacco. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics revealed that young people who use e-cigarettes are more likely to start using conventional cigarettes than their peers who do not.16 The authors noted:
"Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) may help smokers reduce the use of traditional combustible cigarettes.
However, adolescents and young adults who have never smoked traditional cigarettes are now using e-cigarettes, and these individuals may be at risk for subsequent progression to traditional cigarette smoking."
Do E-Cigarettes Really Help You Quit Smoking?
E-cigarette use is especially prominent among current and former cigarette smokers, many of whom use them to help break their smoking habit. But, does it really work? A study published in late 2014 showed that smokers who used e-cigarettes daily were more likely to quit tobacco, but those who used them intermittently were six times less likely to quit smoking tobacco in the following year.17
There's also data showing that ex-smokers, some of whom hadn't smoked for five years, were taking up (or relapsing) with e-cigarettes,18 which means they're being exposed to a new set of health risks. Everyone is different, of course, and there are success stories too.
My mother smoked for all of her adult life, and when she decided to give up smoking, she used an electronic cigarette in the process and found it helpful. So, I encourage you to do your own research if you're thinking of using e-cigarettes to help you quit and continue in your effort to fully quit.
If You Want to Quit Smoking, Do This First
I believe the "secret" to quitting smoking is to get healthy first, which will make quitting much easier. Exercising is part and parcel of this plan, as research shows people who engage in regular strength training double their success rate at quitting smoking compared to those who don't exercise.19 Healthy eating is another crucial aspect that can't be ignored. In short, if you want to quit, here are the three basic tips to get you started:
- Read through my comprehensive free nutrition plan to get started eating right.
- Develop a well-rounded exercise regimen. It is your ally to fighting disease and to quitting smoking.
Strength training is an important part, but also remember to incorporate high-intensity interval exercises like Peak Fitness, core-strengthening exercises, stretching, and regular non-exercise movement (like walking and cutting back on sitting).
- Find a healthy emotional outlet. Many people use exercise, meditation, or relaxation techniques for this, and these are all great. I also recommend incorporating the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).
This can help clear out emotional blockages from your system (some of which you might not even realize are there), thus restoring your mind and body's balance and helping you break the addiction and avoid cravings.
Once you are regularly doing these three things, then you can begin to think about quitting smoking. At this point many are ready to try quitting "cold turkey." If you need a distraction, these six things to do instead of smoking may help. Finally, if you're a parent, talk with your children about the risks of smoking, smokeless tobacco, and e-cigarettes. The easiest pathway to not smoking is to avoid starting in the first place.