What causes popcorn lung?

Bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome – more commonly known as ‘popcorn lung’ – is an inflammatory obstruction that affects the tiny airways we have in our lungs, called bronchioles.

Bronchioles can become damaged by respiratory infections, which can arise following organ transplants or from inhaling chemical particles. As a result of the extensive scarring that occurs on the bronchioles, the airways become blocked.

Popcorn lung can be caused by a number of things, including vascular diseases and exposure to toxic fumes such as nitrogen dioxide and ammonia.

What is diacetyl?

Diacetyl is an organic compound with a yellow/green colour and a strong buttery taste. It is a food additive that is most commonly found in fake butter flavourings, such as microwave popcorn. While diacetyl is considered safe to eat, however, it has been implicated in supposed cases of popcorn lung.

The colloquial name ‘popcorn lung’ was coined because the bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome first emerged among workers in microwave popcorn factories. This implicated the chemical as the workers had been regularly breathing in diacetyl during their work.

Popcorn lung symptoms

As popcorn lung causes scarring and inflammation in the lung airways, the main symptoms are severe shortness of breath and coughing.

Other popcorn lung symptoms include:

● Wheezing
● Fatigue
● Rattling or crackling sounds in the lungs
● Fast breathing

Can popcorn lung be cured?

Unfortunately popcorn lung is irreversible and incredibly difficult to treat. However, the use of certain medicines, such as immunosuppressives or corticosteroids, can slow the effects of the disease. Lung transplants are also an option for severe cases.

Can vaping cause popcorn lung?

This is the question on everyone’s lips.

A study released in 2015 by Harvard University found that diacetyl was found in more than 75% of flavoured e-cigarettes and refill liquids in the United States. However, not all professionals agreed with the research published.

Diacetyl was a common ingredient in a huge number of e-liquid recipes – particularly the sweeter and stronger flavours such as vanilla, cupcakes and, of course, popcorn. However, many manufacturers have purposefully been removing it over the years.

The inclusion of diacetyl in e-liquid recipes is what has led to the new TPD Regulations being enforced by the European Union. Under these regulations, which were put in action in May 2016 and came fully into force in May 2017, diacetyl, along with several other ingredients, is banned from being included in e-liquids and e-juices.

In short, there are zero reported cases of popcorn lung from vaping.

I vape – should I be worried about popcorn lung?

The new TPD Regulations, which come into full effect at the end of May 2017, require that all e-liquids and e-juices undergo thorough testing to ensure that they do not contain any harmful materials.

Diacetyl is one of the harmful substances tested for – any recipes found to contain diacetyl or other harmful chemicals will not be allowed into production.

Don’t forget that in 2015 Public Health England concluded that e-cigarettes were estimated to be around 95% less harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes.

A study in 2005 studied levels of diacetyl in traditional cigarettes and found that the average amount per cigarette was 335.9 micrograms. If someone were to smoke 20 cigarettes a day (a pack) then they would inhale approximately 6718 micrograms of diacetyl – much higher than contained in any e-cigarette.

Using e-cigarettes is now recommended for those who have smoked and want to quit as a far safer alternative. Traditional cigarettes not only contain higher levels of diacetyl but also other dangerous chemicals – 600 substances are allowed to be added to cigarettes in the UK. No cases of popcorn lung have been brought to public attention as being caused by traditional cigarettes.

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