- A Canadian teen was recently hospitalized because he had a vaping-related condition known as “popcorn lung,” according to a study out Thursday.
- The disease is linked to the chemical diacetyl and occurs when airways become obstructed.
- Unlike other vaping-related illness cases where a person’s lungs become damaged from vape chemicals, the teen’s case is one of the first to illustrate how the devices can harm a person’s airways.
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A 17-year-old in Canada was recently hospitalized because he seems to have the irreversible vaping-related condition known as “popcorn lung.” The condition occurs when the chemical diacetyl, which is found in both vapes and microwave popcorn, along with other chemicals, damage a person’s airways and make breathing difficult.
According to doctors who wrote the case report, published on Thursday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the teen had to be put on a ventilator because he couldn’t breathe on his own. He said he had used both nicotine- and THC-containing vapes regularly before being hospitalized for his condition.
“I was concerned his lungs might never recover enough to get him off the machine,” Dr. Karen Bosma, a London Health intensive care physician and study co-author, told Reuters. In fact, the doctors were so worried about his condition they sent him to a special facility in case he needed an emergency lung transplant.
Four months later, he still had trouble breathing, and the doctors aren’t sure if his lungs will ever recover.
Unlike other vaping-related illness cases where a person’s lungs become damaged from vape chemicals, the teen’s case is one of the first to illustrate how the devices can harm a person’s airways, the study authors wrote.
‘Popcorn lung’ is a nickname for a condition called bronchiolitis obliterates
Bronchiolitis obliterans affects the bronchioles, which are the lung’s smallest airways, according to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Centre. In people who have the condition, the bronchioles can become inflamed and damaged, causing scarring that blocks the airways.
The symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, and fatigue or wheezing, even in the absence of a cold or asthma. A variety of chemicals and respiratory infections can cause lung injury that leads to BO. Additionally, it can be associated with rheumatoid arthritis or graft-versus-host-disease, a possible complication after lung transplants.
The CDC describes bronchiolitis obliterans as “a serious lung disease that is irreversible.”
It’s known by the nickname popcorn lung because in 2000, the condition appeared in a group of workers who had worked at a microwave-popcorn factory where they had regularly inhaled artificial butter flavour. Later, an investigation of other workers at the same factory (who didn’t have BO but had higher-than-average rates of other breathing issues) concluded that there was a link between the extent of the workers’ airway damage and their exposure todiacetyl, a chemical used in artificial butter flavoring.
Afterward, many popcorn makers promised to phase out the chemical from their flavourings, the Associated Press reported in 2007.
Cases of BO have also been identified in workers at a diacetyl manufacturing plant and workers at a coffee processing facility who were exposed to diacetyl, according to the CDC.
One talked-about study found diacetyl in the vapour of flavored e-cigarettes
Much of the discussion surrounding a potential link between e-cigarettes and popcorn lung appears to trace back to a 2015 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
In the study, researchers tested the vapors of 51 flavored e-cigarettes and detected diacetyl in 39 of them.
The study did not prove that vaping causes popcorn lung; it only showed that some flavored e-cigarette vapors contained this chemical. The authors of the paper wrote that their results indicated a need for more research.
“Because of the associations between diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans … urgent action is recommended to further evaluate the extent of this new exposure to diacetyl and related flavoring compounds in e-cigarettes,” they wrote.
But does this represent a major risk for e-cigarette users?Some experts have pointed out that diacetyl is not unique to e-cigs. In fact, research shows it is found in far greater levels in normal cigarette smoke, and normal smoking isn’t considered a “major risk factor” for BO, according to Public Health England.
Plus, not all e-cigs liquids necessarily contain the chemical. On its website last year, Juul said it does not add diacetyl as a flavour ingredient in its manufacturing process. And in the UK, for example, diacetyl has been banned in e-cigarette liquid.
The authors of the most recent case study wrote that their findings underscore “the need for further research into all potentially toxic components of e-liquids and tighter regulation of e-cigarettes.”
There are other reasons why vaping is dangerous
As of this month, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has reported at least 42 deaths and 2,172 potentially life-threatening lung injuries from vapes, Insider previously reported. Plenty of other symptoms, including lung inflammation and “vape tongue” have also been reported even after vaping for just a short period of time.
“You are playing with your life when you play with this stuff,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in October, announcing the death of a 17-year-old boy from the Bronx, the first death in that state, and the youngest death that’s been reported in the US.
While investigations continue, the CDC “recommends that people do not use THC-containing e-cigarette, or vaping, products.”
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that an investigation analysed diacetyl exposure in a group of popcorn factory workers who developed bronchiolitis obliterans. The investigation actually analysed diacetyl exposure in different workers at the same factory.
Caroline Praderio contributed to an earlier version of this story.
- Read more:
- A 17-year-old vaped so much he needed a double-lung transplant, a last resort when all other treatments fail
- 9 alarming facts about the vaping illness epidemic
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