What is Popcorn Lung? Should Vapers be Concerned?



The media is always eager to hype a scare story, and this is especially true when it involves a relatively new thing like electronic cigarettes (e-cigs). This behavior, of course, is driven by the desire to get higher ratings. Thanks to these factors, TV news shows and newspapers will sometimes claim that vaping e-cigs causes “popcorn lung”.

You likely have many questions after seeing one of these breathlessly-delivered reports. What is popcorn lung? Can you really get it by using e-cigs? Is the danger as great as the reports make it seem? Should such reports be ignored? Here are some answers to these common questions.

What is Popcorn Lung?

This is a common term for a disease that has a rather scary name: bronchiolitis obliterans (BO). As the second part implies, it obliterates the smallest parts of the airways inside the lungs. It’s as deadly as the description implies, and only a lung transplant will save a sufferer.

That said, it is hard to diagnose this disease without a lung biopsy, and even then, can still be mistaken for the more well-known COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is a condition involving both bronchitis and emphysema. Most emphysema sufferers have bronchitis as well, hence the medical community’s switch to the use of the term COPD.

One big difference between BO and COPD is the speed of onset. COPD typically takes years to reach a critical stage, while BO comes on within months after exposure.

Can You Get it by Using E-Cigs?

To answer this, we must first take a look at what causes it. It is known to be caused by industrial levels of exposure to a chemical called diacetyl or one of diacetyl’s close relatives. Diacetyl used to be used to create the butter flavor in microwave popcorn. That’s why the disease is commonly called “popcorn lung”. Once doctors figured out that diacetyl was dangerous to inhale, it was mostly phased out of use in popcorn and other products.

Before this connection was made, it was common for e-juice makers to use diacetyl in order to create butter-flavored products. E-juice is the substance that is vaporized when an e-cig is “smoked”. Many also used it to beef up the taste in flavors that weren’t explicitly supposed to taste like butter.

Once news about popcorn lung came out, vapers (e-cig users) quickly demanded diacetyl-free e-juice. Most juice makers quickly complied, but not all.

With that understood, it is likely most correct to say that it is theoretically possible to get BO from vaping e-juice. However, there have not been any reported cases of this actually happening. Therefore, it’s logical to figure that the chance is extremely small.

E-Cigs vs. Regular Cigarettes

Hype-driven news reports rarely, if ever, make the comparison that would put things in perspective. This comparison is between the chemicals in e-cigs vs. those in regular tobacco cigarettes. According to Vaping360.com, regular smokers are likely to be inhaling 100 times more diacetyl than those using e-cigarettes!

It is unknown whether or not the diacetyl in regular cigarettes causes popcorn lung. That’s because doctors typically assume that, in a smoker, COPD-like symptoms mean that the person actually has COPD. Autopsies are expensive enough that they are rarely done, much less to attempt to do this particular post-mortem diagnosis. Therefore, it’s possible that the assumptions about smokers and COPD are sometimes wrong.

That said, it’s clear that regular cigarettes are not safer than e-cigs. They have large quantities of toxic chemicals in every puff – up to hundreds of times more than in a puff of e-juice. In fact, most e-juice makers take pains to eliminate known toxins from their recipes.

Is There Anything at All to Reports of This Danger?

Reports about popcorn lung and e-cigs fall victim to the same problem as almost all other fear-driven reporting: They greatly exaggerate the danger. While this may not qualify them as outright fictitious, they spread fear where it doesn’t belong.

For the vast majority of people, using e-cigs has allowed them to avoid or at least minimize exposure to a much greater threat: the massive amounts of toxic chemicals in smoke from combustible tobacco cigarettes. Reports that ignore this fact are, at best, very incomplete.

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