Harvard study: How much diacetyl is in vape liquids?

It has long been settled science that tobacco smoke is harmful, and the tobacco inside your cigarette is actually a lot more than just dried tobacco leaves. According to the American Cancer Society, chemicals found in tobacco smoke include formaldehyde, lead, arsenic, ammonia, and even radioactive materials that come from the fertilizer and soil used to grow the tobacco plant. The smoke from burning the tobacco, combined with these dangerous chemicals, is what causes cancer and other diseases.

Vaping is acknowledged as safer than smoking by the American Cancer Society and the FDA. Although they stop short of an outright endorsement, both agencies to recognize that the carcinogens come from smoke –not vapor – and that vaping is less harmful and may be an appropriate device for smoking cessation.

A Harvard study recently looked at diacetyl, a chemical linked to respiratory disease and is linked to “popcorn lung.” The study examined vaping liquids and tested them for the presence of diacetyl, showing that it was present in 39 of 51 vape flavors tested.

The study however, was very limited, with the sampling of 51 products from eight vendors. There has been some media coverage that has sensationalized the Harvard study and has taken it out of context, with the news reports drawing their own conclusions and missing the scientific basis of the study. To be clear, the Harvard study does not, as some news reports maintain, confirm that vaping is dangerous, nor does the Harvard study conclude that it causes lung disease.

The Harvard study does not conclude that vaping causes popcorn lung, but it did indicate appropriately, a need for further research.To put it in perspective though, the study saw one outlier vape product with diacetyl at 239 micrograms per e-cigarette, although when that single outlier is not considered, the rest were either under the study’s limit of quantification (LOQ) up to a high of 38 micrograms, for an average of just 9.0 micrograms. Combustible cigarettes on the other hand, tested at 336 micrograms per cigarette.

There are some worries however, about what toxins and chemicals may be contained in vaping liquids.

What is diacetyl?

There is no doubt that vape liquids contain far fewer toxins and chemicals than does tobacco smoke; and further, because vape devices do not ignite the liquids or dry substances they contain, smoke is not generated and harmful chemicals are less likely to be ingested. That said, it is only natural that those who vape, would want a product that is free from chemicals like diacetyl.

Diacetyl is a byproduct of the fermentation process used in making some dairy products, and it is often used as a food additive because of its buttery flavor. When used this way, it is considered safe (for example, it is used in margarine). Breathing it in large quantities however, can be dangerous. It is used in microwave popcorn to give it a buttery flavor, and the term “popcorn lung” came about when workers in popcorn factories spent their days in work areas with diacetyl in the air.

There is a choice available

The results of the Harvard study, when examined in context, still point to vaping as being a safer alternative to combustible smoking, and show that the diacetyl content is substantially lower, with the exception of the one outlier, than combustible cigarettes.

Regardless, the presence of diacetyl, even in smaller quantities, is something that vapers should be aware of, and fortunately, there are plenty of vape liquids which contain either extremely low trace amounts of it, or none at all. The diacetyl is contained in some of the flavorings used.

For this reason, it is safer to buy vaping liquids from a reliable shop, rather than a local vape shop which mixes it in-house – the reason being, those small storefront shops tend to buy bulk flavorings, which do often contain diacetyl. More reliable producers of vape liquids actually do in-house testing and have a chemist on staff. Look for established, online vendors like Vapor Authority,which offer a wider selection of vape liquids from reliable companies. Vapor Authority offers several vape liquids that are diacetyl-free, including the highly-regarded Halo, the entire line of which is diacetyl-free. 

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