A Harvard study claiming most e-cigarette brands expose vapers to harmful chemicals omits critical information and exaggerates the risks of flavored e-cigs, according to tobacco control experts.
Published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the study analyzed a host of e-liquid flavors to discover levels of the potentially dangerous chemicals diacetyl, acetyl propionyl, and acetoin.
Researchers found one or more of the three chemicals present in 92 percent of the 51 unique flavors of e-liquid. Diacetyl is identified in 39 of 51 flavors – 75 percent of the total.
Following the study’s publication, an array of media outlets focused on the presence of diacetyl, a chemical used for food flavoring that if inhaled in large amounts can lead to a severe respiratory disease – bronchiolitis obliterans.
Bronchiolitis obliterans is commonly known as “popcorn lung,” because it was identified in workers who inhaled the artificial butter flavor used to make microwavable popcorn. A number of cases of popcorn lung were found to be so severe patients required a full-blown lung transplant.
The Harvard study whipped up a storm of hyperbolic headlines including “Harvard study finds that E-cigarette flavors cause lung disease” and “Chemicals in Flavored E-Cigarettes Tied To ‘Popcorn Lung’ Disease.”
But the headlines may be shielding the truth about the potential risk of popcorn lung from using e-cigarettes. “Tobacco cigarette smoke contains high levels of diacetyl and acetyl propionyl, on average 100 and 10 times higher,” compared to average e-cigarette exposure, says Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos, an expert on e-cigarette research.
Farsalinos examines the disparity between tobacco and e-cigarettes from research conducted by himself and colleagues published in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research in 2014.
Not only are levels of diacetyl far higher in tobacco smoke than e-cig vapor, but the levels of dangerous compounds found in many of the products studied “are absolutely minimal, and it is not expected to raise any concerns about human health effects,” according to Farsalinos.
Farsalinos adds that the researchers fail to mention the presence of these compounds in tobacco cigarette smoke. “This omission creates the impression that e-cigarettes are exposing users to a new chemical hazard while in reality their exposure will be much lower compared to smoking.”
He concludes the study is guilty of “creating false impressions and exaggerates the potential risk from diacetyl and acetyl propionyl exposure through e-cigarettes.”
But even more concerning for those who may want to exaggerate the risks of using e-cigarettes, is that even tobacco smoke has no identifiable link with any cases of popcorn lung.
According to Critical Reviews in Toxicology, “smoking has not been shown to be a risk factor for bronchiolitis (popcorn lung).“
Since tobacco smoke contains far higher levels of diacetyl than flavored e-cigarettes and there has not been a single confirmed case of a smoker contracting popcorn lung, the likelihood that vapers will contract this particular lung disease is minimal, to say the least.
Bill Godshall, executive director of Smokefree Pennsylvania and a long-time anti-smoking activist, is even more damning in his criticism of the Harvard study.
“This is yet another Department of Health and Human Services-funded study that is intended to deceive and scare the public about vaping to lobby for Food and Drug Administration’s deeming ban.
“While finding zero evidence of ‘Popcorn Lung,’ the authors are trying to create a public panic,” Godshall tells The Daily Caller News Foundation. Pro-vaping groups are also quick to point out that few people have claimed e-cigarettes are completely free of any health risk.
Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association told TheDCNF, “in the debate over vaping, the concept of relative risk should not be ignored. Vapor products are a far safer alternative to smoking, but it has long been recognized that they are not 100 percent safe.
“Earlier this year, a dozen public health groups endorsed Public Health England’s briefing estimating vaping to be approximately 95 percent less hazardous than smoking. Their assessment left room for some unknown risk from ingredients like flavorings.”