“Popcorn lung.” The reality is lot less funny than it sounds.
Back in 2000, a public health official in Kansas City spoke to a lawyer who was representing several factory workers. The lawyer’s clients all worked at a factory in Jasper, Missouri, that manufactured microwave popcorn, and they all had the same rare lung disease.
Even if someone doesn’t understand Latin, the disease’s scientific name – bronchiolitis obliterans – makes it pretty clear what it does. The disease destroys the lungs’ airways, ruining the body’s ability to take in enough oxygen. Until that point in time, the disease was mostly associated with exposure to harmful chemicals like ammonia, chlorine and jet fuel, along with rejections of lung transplants.
The suspected culprit was a chemical called diacetyl, an additive that gives foods a buttery taste. Diacetyl was used as a flavoring agent in the plant’s popcorn, and investigators believed there was a relationship between the chemical’s fumes and the workers’ lung injuries.
As for the rest of the story, it ended in lawsuits, lifetime health problems for the workers and a new name for a rare lung disease.
It’s worth pointing out that a definite link between popcorn lung and diacetyl exposure has never been established. But a person doesn’t need to work in a popcorn factory to get exposed to diacetyl – it’s possible to inhale diacetyl in other ways. Namely, vaping.
The science behind vaping is not widely understood
E-cigarettes work by heating a fluid, commonly called “e-juice,” to its boiling point, which creates a vapor the user inhales and exhales. The fluid is a mix of water, additives like vegetable glycerin or propylene glycol, flavorings, and, in some cases, a nicotine solution.
The problem is the e-cigarette industry is not strongly regulated, and many of their products haven’t been studied in great detail. Take propylene glycol: it’s consumed daily in baked goods and soft drinks, but the effects it has on the body when inhaled are largely unknown.
What is known is that diacetyl is present in many of the solutions used in e-cigarettes. Last year, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a study of e-cigarettes and vaping liquids. The researchers found diacetyl in more than 75 percent of the flavored products they tested. The tests also tested for acetoin and 2, 3-pentanedione, additional flavoring chemicals listed as potential workplace hazards by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association. Of the 51 flavors tested, researchers found at least one of the chemicals in 47 of the flavors.
Again, the jury’s still out on links between vaping and respiratory disease. A 2013 study published in The BMJ’s journal “Tobacco Control” found only small amounts of toxic substances in the products they tested. Vaping and e-cigarettes are still relatively new products, however, and there’s still much studying to be done. “Since most of the health concerns about e-cigarettes have focused on nicotine, there is still much we do not know about e-cigarettes,” Harvard study co-author David Christiani said to the Harvard Gazette. “In addition to containing varying levels of the addictive substance nicotine, they also contain other cancer-causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and as our study shows, flavoring chemicals which can cause lung damage.”
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About the Author
Brian Moore is a 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years.