Researchers from the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health have located a dangerous compound related to an irreversible lung disease in the flavouring of e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes distribute nicotine in water vapour, eliminating the need to burn tobacco. The battery-operated gadgets have been advertised as a healthier alternative to tobacco-based products.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarettes are becoming increasingly popular, and more than 20 percent of young adults have tried smoking with the device, and current smokers, or those who have recently quit, are among the most likely to use them.

“There’s a perception that e-cigarettes are healthier than regular cigarettes, or at least not as harmful as regular cigarettes,” says John P. Richie Jr., Professor of Public Health Sciences and Pharmacology. “While e-cigarette vapour does not contain many of the toxic substances that are known to be present in cigarette smoke, it’s still important to figure out and minimise the potential dangers that are associated with e-cigarettes.”

Scientists from the Harvard School conducted a survey involving 51 separate brands of e-cigarettes, with flavours including butterscotch, toffee and praline. They were shocked to find that 39 of the e-cig samples frequently contained harmful flavouring compounds such as 2,3-pentanedione and acetoin, as well as dangerously high levels of diacetyl.

Diacetyl, also known as butane-2,3-dione, is an artificial flavouring that leaves a sweet, buttery taste. Scientists have pinpointed the chemical as a source of the permanent health complaint commonly known as ‘Popcorn Lung’. The illness got its name after workers at a Missouri-based microwave popcorn plant developed the disease as a result of repeated exposure to diacetyl vapour. Thirty-nine of the e-cigarette brands tested in the study contained diacetyl levels of up to 239 micrograms per cigarette.

In January 2014, the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) proposed an occupational exposure limit for both diacetyl  and 2,3-pentanedione.

In a paper titled Environmental Health Perspectives, however, the Harvard scientists emphasised that these limits were not intended for the protection of the general public, since they assume workers to already possess a certain level of health, and do not follow the usual US precautionary lower risk levels of 1 in 100,000 to 1,000,000 against adverse effects.

In order for us to truly understand the health risks associated with the smoking of e-cigarettes, further and more comprehensive research must be implemented.

Image via Shutterstock.

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