Harvard Study Reveals Dangers of E-Cigarettes

Harvard scientists recently published findings from a new study on electronic cigarettes, a rapidly growing industry. The scientists found that many flavored e-cigarette liquids contain chemicals that cause a permanent lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, popularly known as "Popcorn Lung." Seventy five percent of the flavored e-liquids tested contain, diacetyl, and other harmful compounds.

It is widely believed that bronchiolitis obliterans may be caused by inhalation of diacetyl, a chemical used to produce artificial butter flavoring in many foods. The dangers of diacetyl came to public attention when several former employees of the Gilster-Mary Lee popcorn plant developed bronchiolitis obliterans, hence the name, Popcorn Lung.

Bronchiolitis obliterans is a rare and life-threatening form of permanent obstructive lung disease in which the bronchioles are compressed and narrowed by scar tissue and/or inflammation. Symptoms, which frequently present gradually, include:

  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty exhaling quickly.

Diagnosis of bronchiolitis obliterans can be difficult and is often misdiagnosed as asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema or pneumonia. Diagnosis may require breathing tests, X-rays, chest scans, and lung biopsies. The disease is relatively unresponsive to current medical treatment. While symptoms may improve over time, patients may require lung transplant.

According to the Harvard study, many who smoke e-cigarettes with flavored liquids regularly inhale diacetyl. Of particular concern is that many e-cigarette smokers are teenagers and many states permit minors to buy e-cigarettes. The FDA is considering regulations to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Many e-cigarette liquids also contain other cancer-causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde. The Harvard team concluded that urgent action is recommended to evaluate the potentially widespread diacetyl exposure via flavored e-cigarettes.