The One Where They Used Misinformation To Scare You, or The Great Diacetyl Study of 2015.
So here we are again, watching another panic emerge, expand, and then collapse. What happened? The resurgence of diacetyl being the club used to bludgeon us over the head, to tell everyone how terrible vaping is...until both sides of the story were revealed. This is not going to be a post concerning the potential dangers of diketones, but an examination of what the issues are, in regards to this study, and why it's important that the full details must be presented, to give vapers the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions. There's a fair amount we'll have to unpack, so let's just start at the beginning, with some background.
A study at Harvard University was conducted, with the objective of finding if particular chemicals, known as diketones, were present in electronic cigarette/vaping devices.
What are diketones?
Diketones are a family of molecules used within the food and beverage industry to create a buttery or creamy taste, and include Diacetyl, Acetyl Propionyl, and Acetoin.
Why do they matter?
Diketones, particularly Diacetyl, have been linked to a lung disease known as bronchiolitis obliterans, or 'popcorn lung'.
Um...that doesn't sound like a good thing.
It's not. See, in the 90's, there was a very small group of workers in a factory that made microwave popcorn that were diagnosed with similar conditions within a short period of time. No one was really sure what had happened. But through serious examination, people determined that Diacetyl, which was used as an ingredient in the butter flavoring, could be the cause. The factory had extremely high amounts of powdered Diacetyl in the air, which was being inhaled on a daily basis by all of the workers. This is an important point to remember, and we will revisit this a little later on. This particular set of circumstances led to safety regulations concerning Diacetyl exposure in the workplace. This particular incident was the general publics first time hearing about Diacetyl.
How's this relate to vaping?
Most e-liquid consists of four different ingredients: nicotine, propylene glycol [PG], vegetable glycerin [VG]...and food flavoring.
I don't like where this is going.
Don't panic. Panic is what caused this entire debacle. After people realized that e-liquids could contain diketones, everyone kind of jumped to whatever conclusion they liked the best, and demonized or defended it with everything they had. This is more or less where we find ourselves now, amidst the presence of headlines proclaiming the dangers of vaping.
Well, Diacetyl is bad. Diacetyl is present in e-liquid. So that means that e-liquid is bad, which means vaping is bad!
Slow down, you should know by now that nothing is ever as cut and dry as that. Especially when money is involved. Correlation does not equal causation. The popcorn factory workers affected were only a very small group out of the entire factory (8 workers were diagnosed with popcorn lung), and they were breathing Diacetyl in a POWDERED form 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week...for years. This is radically different from diketone exposure from vaping, which makes it extremely difficult to try and compare the two.
Alright, I see why they wanted to conduct a study concerning Diacetyl and e-cigs.
Absolutely. Vaping hasn't been around long enough for there to be peer-reviewed long-term data yet. There have been multiple studies conducted in the past several years, but there hasn't been any conclusive determinations as of now. The problem isn't with conducting studies and tests. The problems arise from who is doing the testing, how they are doing the testing, who is funding the testing, what everyone's agendas are, and how the results are presented. This particular study isn't even the first one in the past year that has been exposed as fatally flawed.
Oh, right...the formaldehyde thing
Yep. Tests were conducted using products that were completely out of date, and in ways that were not at all related to real world usage. Once the actual facts were revealed, the study and its results were universally discredited, and retracted as proof of danger (see articles at bottom). We're seeing this happen all over again, with this Harvard University study.
The study presented findings showing that diketones were present in 47 out of 51 products tested. That makes a great headline! How could anyone pass up on running an attention grabber like that? As the headlines gained traction, more and more outlets shared it, blogged it, tweeted it...but didn't take the time to examine what was really there. At best, it could be considered negligent, and at its most egregious, viewed as deliberate dishonesty. The study presented its results in such a way as to gloss over anything that could refute the purported dangers associated with vaping and diketones.
Out of 51 liquids, tests found Diketone levels from 0 to 239 micrograms in 47 of them. Not fantastic news, but no reason to grab your pitchfork. Did you know that traditional tobacco cigarettes also contain Diketones? NIH (National Institute of Health) checked into the presence of Diketones in 14 different cigarette brands, and found levels ranging from 301 to 433 micrograms per cigarette (see article at bottom.) The maximum levels detected in e-liquids are substantially lower than the minimum levels in traditional cigarettes.
Just to make this even more entertaining, NIH also has published findings directly stating that this Diacetyl exposure from smoking cigarettes is not a risk factor for developing bronchiolitis obliterans. I will post links below, but a direct quote from the NIH study states "Further, because smoking has not been shown to be a risk factor for bronchiolitis obliterans, our findings are inconsistent with claims that diacetyl and/or 2,3-pentanedione exposure are risk factors for this disease." [2,3-pentanedione is the chemical structure of Acetyl Propionyl]
So what about the liquids tested? If you're willing to dive deep down into the study results find the actual levels detected in each liquid, all of the highest offenders are products developed, marketed, distributed, and sold by Big Tobacco.
The highest reading in the study, that 239 micrograms? It's theirs.
Highest level found in any of the liquids NOT made by a Big Tobacco company? Less than 40 micrograms.
Pretty significant statistic, but one that certainly was not shared as widely as those scary headlines. Remember this the next time you hear the discussions concerning FDA regulation, and Big Tobacco fighting for a law that removes newer open-system devices, or the assertion that they are the only manufacturers that could ensure the quality and safety of all vaping products.
Which leads right into one of the most important points concerning vaping as a whole - the word 'safe'. Safe is not a word that we should be using in reference to vaping. I hear it thrown about far too often, similar to the 'it's just water vapor' line. We are often asked, 'is your juice safe?' The only answer I find acceptable is 'No.' Not because it is unsafe, but because I can not decide what is safe for you. Only you can do that, but it's so hard to make the choice when you don't have all of the information. This is the entire reason that we strive to educate our customers, and vapers as a whole! No one can state that vaping is completely 'safe'...but we can tell you it is SAFER, safer than smoking. Safer by as much as 95%, by quite a few studies that have stood up to intense scrutiny.
At its core, vaping is a demonstration of harm reduction. We had an extremely harmful habit, but have now been able to remove it and replace it with another habit that is orders of magnitude less harmful! We love vaping, we love getting to make e-liquid that people enjoy, and will always strive to protect this thing of ours. We encourage every vaper to get educated, and to get involved!
Diacetyl and Cigarettes:
UK Ministry of Health
Dr. Farsalinos [one of the leading researchers in studying vaping] stated directly in response to this study in an interview with The Daily Caller - “This omission creates the impression that e-cigarettes are exposing users to a new chemical hazard while in reality their exposure will be much lower compared to smoking.”