The FDA doesn’t know if flavored vaping chemicals are safe to breathe

Regulation of vapes and e-cigarettes has been in the news this week, after San Franciscans voted yes on a proposition that would prohibit the sale of flavored tobaccos — a category that includes menthol cigarettes, flavored hookah tobacco, infused cigars and flavored vaping liquids.

But while proponents of the ban succeeded by arguing that flavored tobacco products were a way for kids and teens to get hooked on tobacco products, a more looming public health issue lies in the mystery surrounding the safety of the flavoring chemicals inside e-cigarette liquids — many of which are billed by manufacturers as safe because the FDA has approved them for ingestion.

Yet no one knows for sure if you can breathe the same chemicals safely. Moreover, some common vape flavoring chemicals, including diacetyl, have been well-documented as causing chronic lung diseases.

Diacetyl was not originally supposed to be something that you smoke or breathe, but is commonly used to add flavor to food; if you’ve ever eaten microwave popcorn, you have probably consumed diacetyl.  Also known as 2,3-butanedione, diacetyl is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for ingestion, but there has not been an agency-approval for it to be inhaled. In fact, there have been multiple reports of people who breathed it contracting bronchiolitis obliterans — also known as “popcorn lung” — a lung disease that affects and inflames the lung’s small airways, or bronchioles. Those with the lung disease can experience shortness of breath, wheezing, and asthma-like symptoms.

The connection between diacetyl and “popcorn lung” came into the public eye in 2000 when an occupational medicine physician alerted the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services about eight patients who had a fixed obstructive lung disease. The patients were former workers of a microwave popcorn factory; four of them went on lung transplant lists.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated cases of this popcorn lung and eventually released guidelines to deal with the chemical in factories. However, nothing has been done to regulate its usage in flavored tobacco products, despite evidence that the chemical is being used in flavored tobacco products.


“The FDA has significant authority to oversee e-cigarettes and they are failing to use it,” Erika Sward, National Assistant Vice President of Advocacy at the American Lung Association, told Salon. “As a result it is the Wild Wild West, and you have retailers who are mixing e-liquids in their backrooms.”



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