The Diacetyl Debate
Life is never simple is it? Nobody is more aware of this fact than a smoker who is trying to quit the habit.
Failure can seem inevitable when you feel so miserable and that itchy red skin from the nicotine patches has become a serious pain in the posterior. Then you discover vaping, and life as a reformed smoker doesn’t seem so bad after all – until the European Commission starts interfering and you begin to hear all sorts of scary stories about the dangers of vaping.
Some of the bad publicity that you may have encountered will doubtless have focussed on the presence of Diacetyl in eliquids. Oh no! Just when you thought that your problems were solved you are forced to consider that your electronic cigarettes might actually prove to be less benign than you first thought. So have you jumped out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire?
Fanning the Flames
Well, you certainly haven’t jumped into a raging inferno! Whilst smokers continue to die with alarming regularity, there hasn’t exactly been an epidemic of vapers suffering from lung diseases which can be attributed to their use of electronic cigarettes. You have probably never seen a vaper dragging themselves up a flight of stairs like a galloping consumptive, struggling for breath, or walking around with an oxygen tank in tow. So does that mean that you should ignore diacetyl as an issue?
Probably not! Vaping is a relatively new innovation and so the health risks have yet to be fully explored and understood. It is going to be difficult to quantify any associated risks anyway, as the vast majority of vapers are ex-smokers. It could be difficult to determine whether any ill-health that they experience is a result of their new habit or their old one.
Clinical trials have been, and continue to be, conducted but do tend to produce contradictory results and findings which are open to interpretation. Many have shown that vaping can alter cell structure in the lungs which sounds rather alarming when taken at face value. But then it emerges that extremely high levels of exposure have been used in some trials, often much higher levels than any vaper is likely to inflict on their lungs. In addition, the reaction of cells in the laboratory may not translate into cell damage in the real world.
It has also been shown that simply breathing hot and humid air can have a similar effect on the airways to vaping. Perhaps you should avoid taking any trips to Florida if you are hell-bent on risk avoidance!
The truth is that definitive answers will only be found by studying vapers’ health over many years and vaping has not been around for long enough – yet.
So what is all the fuss about when it comes to diacetyl?
The Trouble with Flavourings
The scientific studies which have been conducted regarding the safety of vaping have generally indicated that any associated health issues are most likely to be caused by the flavourings in eliquids rather than by the base liquids or nicotine. Diacetyl has been found to feature in some eliquid flavours, and this compound has been linked to lung disease when inhaled.
What is Diacetyl?
Diacetyl or butanedione is an organic compound. It is a yellowish liquid which has a buttery and sweet flavour. Diacetyl is a naturally occurring substance which is used to flavour many different foods and beverages and is completely safe to eat or drink. However, it is not considered safe to inhale. Diacetyl was widely used to flavour popcorn but after many workers in the industry succumbed to the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans, most manufacturers stopped using this compound in their products.
Testing has shown that diacetyl is present in a high proportion of eliquids, most commonly in sweet and buttery flavours. It can also be used in fruity juice to produce a riper characteristic to the flavour.
Certain elements of the media have jumped on the diacetyl issue with a typical lack of restraint. The headlines have only just short of suggesting that vapers are inhaling arsenic and that their premature death is imminent. But opinion remains divided as to exactly how problematic the presence of diacetyl in eliquids might actually be.
Many eliquid producers have taken steps to remove diacetyl from their flavours. However, some have replaced this compound with acetyl propionyl which could be just as problematic. In addition, whilst eliquid producers may have requested that their suppliers remove diacetyl from their flavourings, that hasn’t always meant that they have done so.
Tests conducted by Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos in 2014 revealed that a German eliquids producer’s products contained potentially hazardous levels of Diacetyl and yet the company was unaware of this fact. Dr. Konstantinos was sufficiently shocked by his findings to conduct further tests on popular brands. He purchased supplies anonymously and discovered that the majority of sweet flavours contained diacetyl or acetyl propionyl in quantities higher than the recommended levels for safety. He then wrote to the manufacturers concerned and urged then to remove the compounds from their products.
But just how hazardous are these compounds when it comes to vaping?
Vaping and Diacetyl
There is no doubt that diacetyl has caused bronchiolitis obliterans in popcorn workers who inhaled the compound in the form of vapour. However, concentrations were very high. It should also be noted that vaping, despite its name, involves the inhalation of aerosols rather than vapour. With aerosols, the droplets produced are larger and it is unclear how significant this could be in terms of the depositing of diacetyl deep in the lungs.
There have been no cases of bronchiolitis obliterans in vapers but it is important to understand that this disease may be underreported. It is not yet known what role diacetyl may play in the development of other lung diseases including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema.
Perhaps the most important point to stress is that the compound is also present, and in higher concentrations, in cigarette smoke. However hazardous any diacetyl in eliquids eventually proves to be, the dangers will almost certainly be much less than those presented by smoking.
As diacetyl is not an essential ingredient of eliquid, it represents an avoidable risk. This compound could prove to be relatively harmless but why include it in flavours until the true risks are known?
You might be surprised to hear that opinion remains divided on this particular subject. Is it the case that eliquids must be completely safe or is some element of risk acceptable given that smoking is so harmful and that electronic cigarettes are helping so many people to quit? If diacetyl is removed from eliquids and the result of this turns out to be the production of less appealing flavours, would that prevent some smokers from turning to vaping? If an element of risk is acceptable then should vapers be made aware of the presence of diacetyl in eliquids so that they can make an informed choice?
There is a fine balance to be struck here. It sounds obvious that warnings should be issued. But what if those warnings mean that fewer smokers then quit their habit because they think that vaping is equally dangerous? In addition, it is hard to issue meaningful warnings when the dangers cannot be quantified and there is no definitive evidence that any danger exists in the first place.
As we said before, life is never simple!
The debate will rage on and further research will eventually reveal the truth about diacetyl. In the meantime, you may wish to avoid inhaling this compound and the only way that you will be able to do that is if it’s presence or absence is clearly identified by eliquid producers. With many leading ranges this is now the case. But these warnings are only useful if the producers can be certain about the ingredients in the flavourings that they purchase from outside sources, and they may not be.
Manufacturers should certainly take the potential consequences of inhaling diacetyl seriously and, in truth, should make stringent attempts to eliminate this compound from their products.
Alternatives to diacetyl will doubtless be found. However, these could prove to be equally problematic. But one thing is surely beyond debate. Vaping is safer than smoking whether your juice contains diacetyl or not!
Sources: breathing hot air https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3373066/
Dr Konstaninos http://www.ecigarette-research.org/research/index.php/whats-new/whatsnew-2015/236-da2