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What’s All The Fuss About Diacetyl?

by · September 17, 2014

About Diacetyl In E-CigarettesMost vapers are deeply concerned about the science involved with vaping. Although years of research have conclusively proven that smoking kills, the electronic cigarette industry is still in it’s infancy and it’s far too early to draw definitive conclusions about this seemingly “safer” alternative. So far, the majority of research suggests that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than smoking, but there’s a lot we don’t know about the long-term impacts of inhaling vaporized nicotine. Even though all of the ingredients used in electronic cigarettes are “FDA-approved” and widely considered safe for human consumption, inhalation (over extended periods of time) has never been fully studied. One of the ingredients that has raised the most concern is diacetyl.

The primary ingredients used in e-liquid, propylene glycol (PG) and vegetable glycerin (VG), have been studied for decades, are FDA-approved and widely considered safe in a variety of forms, including as a vapor. Other ingredients, including most of the flavorings, are also approved for a variety of uses, but diacetyl has caused a serious controversy and may pose some dangerous health risks.

What Is Diacetyl & Why Is It Used?

Diacetyl is found in many of the products we consume every day. It occurs naturally in the foods we eat such as butter, vinegar and honey. It’s also produced during the fermentation process, present in alcoholic beverages and foods like cheese. The yellow-green liquid carries an intense buttery flavor and it’s commonly used as a food flavoring. It’s also recognized as “generally-safe” by the FDA.

In electronic cigarettes, diacetyl provides that creamy, buttery taste found in some e-liquid. Flavors such as butterscotch, custard and caramel are often produced with diacetyl, but despite being safe for ingestion, diacetyl and acetyl propionyl are thought to be hazardous when inhaled.

The Cause For Concern – Popcorn Lung

Popcorn LungThe reason diacetyl has become a health concern for vapers is a rare outbreak of the disease called bronchiolitis obliterans in the late 1990’s. Also referred to as “popcorn lung,” it received the infamous name due to it’s association with a microwave popcorn plant in Missouri. Over the course of several years, workers at the factory became sick with asthma and cold-like symptoms, which eventually worsened. As their symptoms advanced, thirty workers were diagnosed with the disease.

Although the cause was heavily debated, many scientists believed that the cases of “popcorn lung” were caused by diacetyl, used in popcorn to produce the buttery flavor that we all know and love. According to reports, diacetyl levels in the factory were three times higher than normal. Lung capacity was drastically reduced for the employees diagnosed with the condition and one eventually required a double lung transplant. That worker filed a lawsuit and was awarded $20 million by a jury.

In another case, a microwave popcorn customer was awarded $7.3 million in damages after contracting popcorn lung. Doctors claimed that the man developed the disease after inhaling fumes from microwaveable popcorn over almost a decade of habitual popcorn consumption.

Facts About Diacetyl & E-Cigarettes

It’s important to note that NO CASE of popcorn lung has ever been attributed to e-cigarettes, but many believe that inhaling this chemical could lead to serious complications. In 2014 low levels of diacetyl (estimated at around 0.05%) were found in one e-liquid sample during a random test of VIP e-liquid in the UK. While the flavor (butterscotch) was immediately discontinued, the news made headlines and it raised serious concerns about the use of diacetyl in e-liquid.

Diacetyl FactsBecause of the known hazards associated with diacetyl, many companies proudly proclaim their products are “diacetyl-free.” While this may be true in some cases, short of independent lab testing there’s no way to know for sure. The fact is, many e-juice companies DO NOT know if their products (or their ingredients) contain diacetyl, and some may be less than forthright, even if they know. Unfortunately, there are no standards for testing and no rules governing the use of diacetyl in e-liquid. Because of the growing concerns, more and more companies are seeking lab certifications, but independent lab testing is not currently required by e-juice companies or their suppliers.

Even though it may be extremely difficult to determine if an e-liquid is truly diacetyl-free, here are some facts that you should be aware of:

  • The quantities of diacetyl discovered in e-cigarettes have been, on average, 100 times lower than those found in traditional tobacco smoke. Another similar chemical, acetyl propionyl, has been discovered at levels 10 times lower than traditional cigarettes.
  • Although smoking kills hundreds of thousands of people each year, traditional cigarettes HAVE NEVER been associated with popcorn lung.

In a recent study conducted by leading e-cig researcher Dr. Farsalinos of the Department of Cardiology, Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center, over 159 samples were evaluated from 36 e-liquid manufacturers. 74.2% of those samples contained diacetyl! Even though the exposure levels were 100 times lower than tobacco, and as mentioned previously, smoking has never been tied to bronchiolitis obliterans or “popcorn lung,” it still raises concerns about the use diacetyl in e-liquid.

Should You Be Concerned?

To me, this topic seems heavily overblown by the media and I don’t think vapers should be overly concerned about diacetyl. Since smokers have been inhaling this chemical for years and bronchiolitis obliterans has never been the result,  it’s likely that the amount of diacetyl required to cause popcorn lung it well beyond the levels found in cigarettes or e-cig vapor. Smoking has been proven to cause plenty of serious health conditions, but popcorn lung isn’t one of them.

With that being said, you should certainly aware of the issue and try to make educated decisions about your e-liquid purchases. If you have the choice between a company that claims their products are diacetyl-free and one that does not, the diacetyl-free product is probably a better choice. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be precautious, but many vendors that switch to diacetyl-free ingredients often replace them with products containing acetyl propionyl, which is virtually identical to diacetyl. If you’re truly concerned, avoiding creamy, buttery and custard-like flavors is another way to reduce your exposure.

Because of the heavy scrutiny and elevated fears, more and more companies are lab testing their products and moving to diacetyl-free ingredients. In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before diacetyl (and acetyl propionyl) are completely removed from all e-liquid, whether the concerns are warranted or not. Be sure to ask, but you may or may not get a straight answer…

* Most companies featured on our website “claim” their products are diacetyl-free, including: HaloMt. Baker Vapor, NicQuid, Space Jam, Suicide Bunny, Virgin Vapor and more.

9 Responses

  1. Amanda says:

    IMHO…. this whole issue has been totally blown WAY out of proportion! (esp lately) Sure, ok.. after giving up what we KNEW to be such a dangerous habit- smoking cigarettes, we’d prefer to limit our exposure to dangerous things in e-cigarettes. That being said, none of the studies done have really been conclusive…. the one in the UK with the lawsuit, isn’t even certain of exactly what caused the problem. Lots of assumptions going on everywhere… not enough facts. Until then. me personally… I’m comfortable knowing that the e-cigarettes & e-liquid I’m using are without a doubt, a helluva lot safer than smoking cigarettes & for now, as is…… I’m ok with the way things are. Who I feel super bad for… again, esp. lately…. are vendors like Suicide Bunny & Space Jam, etc… as well as the even smaller operating ones- where people are DEMANDING testing be done…. again, making assumptions as to their safety, etc. Also being thrown around tho… is that the vendors are somehow being fraudulent, misleading & are hiding things to “make a sale” or something. All these people who are on the same path as us…. who have been fighting the same fight… are being attacked by their fellow vaper. Ugh…. all the drama, etc.. just disgusts me. This “community” as its been known for the well over 2+ years now that I’ve been vaping … is slowly but surely, in every direction I look…. becoming filled with SO MUCH drama, hate, anger, disrespect & just… such bullying, vengeful behavior………… Unfortunately, all something I, in all honesty, don’t even want to be associated with… let alone ANY part of! =( If I owned a restaurant & as a diabetic, ordered a slice of their well-known delicious sugar free apple pie………. & oddly, found that my glucose #’s would climb after each visit.. If I did some research & found out low & behold………. there IS sugar in the vanilla flavoring used in that recipe (that was specifically purchased…. because it was marked, advertised as & may I add, FDA regulated to be a flavoring that’s labeled as such…. to be 100% sugar-free!… ) should I attack the restaurant & try to put them out of business for selling me that apple pie? I mean, how dare they? Ugh…. NO, it’s the flavoring company that lied… didn’t know… or had something added in that contained sugar…. I, as a restaurant owner, did my due diligence to provide the customer with a sugar-free product… I shouldn’t have to run out & have every ingredient TESTED to be what it says it is…. & shouldn’t then, have to test my final product to make sure it is, either. Nor should I be held responsible………….. if & when……….. it isn’t what it promised to be. People fight against regulation for e-cigs & e-liquids… fight against banning….. fight against it all………………. BUT yet for some insane reason…. believe Suicide Bunny should test all their products before sale AND are fully responsible for the results AND for not doing so sooner (only doing so…………… because of the lovely Click Bang! demands on their show…. & the shit-storm that all got created because of it .. all not fair towards that vendor, btw) As usual these days, people, literally, want to have their cake here (or apple pie, in this case.. ) & then eat it too. Regulate, don’t… regulate, don’t… ? Regardless tho, it’s not fair at all… to hold S/B or any vendor responsible, when FlavorArt, Capella or whomever… IS regulated & DID drop the ball… & IS the one who’s DA/AP free flavorings………. supposedly DO have them in there. Not even speaking of whether harmful or not, how much, etc… SB reported their products to be “free of”.. only because that’s what they specifically did the “RIGHT THING” & looked for… & then were sold. Should Diet Pepsi have to send out all their products pre-sale to make sure the sugar-free flavoring they purchased IS actually sugar-free?? Should I have to test every product in my house labeled fat-free or cholesterol free………… before consuming them now? C’mon…………. All in all….. this, imho, is another glaring example of something that isn’t even as big a deal as everyone is making it out to be! Esp when based on inconclusive information & testing on the ingredient, anyway! Also, all the fingers being pointed…. seem to be doing so in the completely wrong direction. Aren’t there SO many more important things we could be focusing our attention on? I mean, no one even cared until it was mentioned…………. & here these things have been around & known about for a good five years now. =( Ugh, really……….what a complete & utter mess this ALL continues to be! Sad, actually. Anyway- thanks for the article & for the information you always provide. Live longER & vape on! :)

  2. Thanks for your input Amanda!

    We agree… this issue has been blown way out of proportion. Sure… vapers should be aware of the potential dangers of diacetyl, but for now, no cases of popcorn lung have ever been associated with vaping and it’s very unlikely due to the low levels found in most e-liquid. With that being said, there’s nothing wrong with being precautious and trying to avoid it, and most vendors are taking the necessary steps to eliminate it from their product lines.

    It’s unfortunate that e-juice makers are feeling pressured to PROVE their products don’t contain diacetyl, since it’s the ingredient manufacturers who should be responsible for backing up their claims about diacetyl-free products. For a popular company like Suicide Bunny (with just several different flavors), I don’t think it’s a big issue to test each individual product, but it will be impossible for smaller companies (with dozens or hundreds of different flavors) to do the same…

  3. I like your post! I agree with what you have said regarding the safety of Diacetyl, Acetyl Propionyl and Acetoin. It’s not really known if they are dangerous or not and cigarette smoke contains diacetyl in greater amounts than E Liquid.

    Though when I first found out about them, I was concerned, because I felt like if they weren’t absolutely NECESSARY to be in my juice… then I would rather not have it, you know?

    I think it’s one of those things where each individual has to make up his own decision regarding the matter :)

  4. Elizabeth Daniel says:

    All I would like is a simple list of which companies are free of those ingredients. It says something different everywhere that I look. Please provide a link or share a compiled list on your site. I have been searching and searching and your website seems to be the only one not afraid to say it like it is. So please, either post on your site or email me a list. I would be forever grateful.

    • Unfortunately, it’s just as hard for us to get straight answers as it is for anyone else. A few e-juice manufacturers have independent lab tests posted on their websites, but the vast majority just “claim” to be diacetyl-free. Since this issue has been blow way out of proportion (in our opinion) we haven’t taken the time to gather a complete list, but it may be something we do in the future…

  5. Lee Robertson says:

    Check out Capella flavours I use them for making my own liquid. Also a site called Alchemists Cupboard has these flavours and are very good.

    All Diacetyl free

    Better to be safe than sorry later down the line.

  6. kevin says:

    I quit smoking , after 35 years. I started vaping and cannot concern myself with ” chemical witch hunts. diacetyl , or not I’m-a-vapin.

  7. Samuel says:

    Is it possible that lighting the cigarette on fire would destroy the harmful aspect of the chemical or change it’s properties before it entered your lungs in a way that vaping would not do? Vaping seems to leave the chemical in a state that would likely be similar to what those in the popcorn factory encountered.

  8. Rocco says:

    Honestly, I think that these all these theoretical science claims are so common in the media because of this new vapor craze. I think the government is trying to get recovering smokers back into smoking. I know this thought sounds crazy, but the government doesn’t make a whole lot of money of or vapor, but cigarettes are a booming business. While there are a lot of smoking awareness campaigns all over the world, I’ve notices a lot more anti vapor messages in our media in the recent years, as opposed to cigarettes.

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