Ever since e-cigarettes came onto the market in 2004, researchers have wondered and debated whether these devices might contain chemicals that lead to lung diseases or cancer.This week, new research from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that the flavorings in some types of e-cigarettes contain chemicals that have been linked to a rare disease called “popcorn lung.”
There are a lot of questions about what the health risks actually are — and what this means for e-cigarettes more broadly. Here’s what we know (and don’t know).
What is “popcorn lung,” and how was it discovered?
In 2001, newspaper reporters broke a story about a mysterious illness that was plaguing workers in factories that produced microwave popcorn.
Employees at the plants were turning up at their doctors’ offices with trouble breathing. On examination, the doctors realized their patients’ wheezing and shortness of breath was caused by permanent lung damage. Some people needed full lung transplants. Federal health officials looked into the cases and discovered these irreversible lung problems were exclusive to the plant employees who had worked closely with — and inhaled — the fragrant whiff of artificial butter.
Simply breathing in diacetyl, the chemical that adds that buttery flavor and smell to popcorn, could increase the risk of a rare and life-threatening condition called bronchiolitis obliterans, known as “popcorn lung.” The disease scars the tissue of the lungs, causing the small airways to become compressed and narrowed. In less severe cases, the exposure to diacetyl was also linked to asthma and bronchitis.
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