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A recent study by Harvard has been generating a lot of interest among vapers. The study found diacetyl and/or the two diacetyl analogs, acetoin and 2,3-pentanedione (also called acetyl propionyl), present in 47 out of 51 e-liquid flavors tested. Diacetyl and its analogues are naturally occurring compounds that have been linked to an extremely serious, irreversible and potentially fatal lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans when heated and inhaled. The connection was first discovered in workers at a microwave popcorn manufacturing plant who were exposed to large vats of butter flavoring that contained significant amounts of diacetyl and since then, bronchiolitis obliterans has gone by the nick name “popcorn lung.”
It should be noted that diacetyl can also be found in cigarette smoke. Given the fact that e-liquid can and should be crafted free of this compound, electronic cigarettes now make this an avoidable risk. The Harvard study has been used to demonize vaping when, in fact, it shows yet again how vaping has the potential to reduce the harm of smoking.
As the owner of Virgin Vapor since 2010, I have learned a lot about diacetyl. Virgin Vapor employs a full time, Ph.D. chemist on our staff, Dr. Marc Foster. We also have an in-house GCMS machine in our lab. GCMS stands for gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, a sophisticated analytical method for analyzing compounds present in a given sample. GCMS machines are commonly used in forensic science as well as at airport security check points and are known for their extreme accuracy in detecting even trace elements in a given sample.
IMAGE: Virgin Vapor's GCMS machine. The doodle on the whiteboard is the chemical composition of nicotine. : )
We have tested all of our flavors for the presence of diacetyl, acetoin and pentanedione. We did our first round of testing with an outside laboratory and continue to perform regular, ongoing testing of our flavors on our GCMS machine to ensure our flavor manufacturers have not changed their formulations and to ensure our test results from batch to batch since organic flavors will naturally have some variation since they are derived from real foods. We have Certificates of Analysis showing all of our flavors to be free of these compounds with a detection limit of 0.1 parts per million.
IMAGE: Virgin Vapor's GCMS machine in action.
While I am proud of the steps that Virgin Vapor has taken to ensure we eliminate this risk for our customers, I am also disturbed by the large number of e-liquid companies that are still including these compounds in their e-liquids. Fortunately, consumers are becoming more educated and are starting to ask e-liquid manufacturers if their e-liquids contain these compounds. However, asking may not be enough.
Many e-liquid companies will claim their products are diacetyl free because their flavor manufacturer told them that. At Virgin Vapor, we do not take our flavor supplier's word for it, we test it ourselves. Why? Our testing has shown that many flavor manufacturers who specifically claim and even label their flavorings as "diacetyl free" may be greatly misleading their vaping customers. A product that contains less than 1% diacetyl can be labeled "diacetyl free" under U.S. food labeling laws. That may be fine in a food product, but 1% diacetyl translates to 10,000 parts per million, an unacceptable level even when diluted in an e-liquid.
To make matters worse, even when I have confronted some of these flavor manufacturers with a laboratory test from an independent lab showing their flavors were full of diacetyl, they refused to accept a return of their product despite their misrepresentation, refused to discontinue the sale with the label “diacetyl free” and even continued to promote their product to other e-liquid manufacturers with the assurance that the flavors did not contain diacetyl. Whether intentional or not, our findings have clearly shown that a flavor manufacturer cannot be trusted to accurately represent the content of these compounds in their products. So when you ask your e-liquid manufacturer if their flavors contain diacetyl, you also have to ask them how they know. Always insist on laboratory testing rather than relying on a flavor manufacturer’s word.
Also, don’t forget to ask about the two diacetyl analogues, acetoin and pentanedione. I recently asked a senior executive at one of the major e-liquid manufacturing companies in the United States if their e-liquids contained diacetyl. He told me no. When I asked about pentanedione, I saw a cloud pass behind his eyes and I could tell that he didn’t know what I was talking about but he still answered no. When I took the sample he gave me back to our lab, my suspicions were confirmed. He was right about there being no diacetyl, but I found massive, unsafe levels of pentanedione instead. There’s not much point beyond a marketing gimmick in removing diacetyl if you fail to make sure you don’t have a pentanedione or acetoin problem as well.
Why do e-liquid manufacturers include these compounds to begin with? The simple answer is, they taste good! A diacetyl-free caramel is just not going to have that ooey-gooey mouth feel that a caramel flavor loaded with diacetyl is going to have. It gives e-liquid manufacturers a competitive advantage to include diacetyl because most consumers won’t know to ask and will prefer the taste.
As a vapor, you should also be aware that while a lot of people know that diacetyl can be present in buttery or creamy or custard type flavors, it can also be present in many other flavors that you may not suspect. We have found high levels of diacetyl in everything from coffee to candy to bakery and even fruit flavors. Avoiding “creamy” type flavors is not enough to avoid diacetyl.
Since the Harvard study, many people are calling for regulation to keep diacetyl, acetoin and pentanedione out of e-liquids. I strongly support regulation but I also feel it is sad that the e-liquid industry as a whole has not taken the steps to police itself. The dangers of diacetyl have long been known in the industry. The Harvard study isn’t anything new. Every e-liquid manufacturer should already be testing for these things. It’s ethically, morally, legally and professionally the only right thing to do. Until regulation does make this issue a thing of the past, be sure to demand your e-liquid manufacturer test for these compounds and take the necessary steps to eliminate them.
Harvard Study: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/12/popcorn-lung-seen-in-e-cigarette-smokers/