Kelley Uustal Trial Attorney
March 21, 2019

How Vaping Can Cause Popcorn Lung

Vaping, or using a vaporizer such as an electronic cigarette to inhale aerosol, has boomed in popularity in the last decade. Teenagers are especially fond of vaping. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports around 3.6 million middle and high school students currently use e-cigarettes as of 2018. This was a substantial increase of more than 1.5 million from the previous year. Many adults and youth do not recognize the dangers of vaping. They mistakenly believe it is a safer alternative to cigarette smoking. In reality, vaping can lead to many of the same health problems, plus a few new ones, such as popcorn lung.

What Is Popcorn Lung?

Popcorn lung refers to a condition that damages the airways, called bronchiolitis obliterans. It initially causes inflammation in the lungs, which builds into scar tissue that can damage the lungs and causes breathing problems. It is a rare, life-threatening medical condition with no known cure. Popcorn lung affects the lungs’ smallest airways – the bronchioles. Scar tissue in the bronchioles can cause the airway to narrow.

The condition earned its nickname because a chemical once commonly used to flavor popcorn, diacetyl, can cause this lung condition. Some of the first people to experience popcorn lung were workers in popcorn factories. Symptoms someone with popcorn lung may experience include trouble breathing, wheezing, dry cough, rapid breathing, exhaustion, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing deeply, and skin irritation (if a chemical is causing the popcorn lung). Diagnosing popcorn lung may take chest x-rays, biopsies, or bronchoscopies.

The damage popcorn lung causes to the airways is irreversible. Once the condition has started impacting the airways, there is no cure. If a patient catches the condition early enough, steroids to reduce inflammation could help prevent further airway constriction. Failing to recognize it early, however, can make treatment more challenging. Antibiotics for respiratory infections, immunosuppressive drugs, supplemental oxygen, and medications may help manage the symptoms of popcorn lung. A lung transplant may be necessary in severe cases.

The Connection Between Vaping and Popcorn Lung

The chemicals that used to be in popcorn, chips, and candies are not the only ones that can cause popcorn lung. Studies have found that breathing in many harmful chemicals over an extended period of time can cause bronchiolitis obliterans. This includes breathing in fumes from ammonia and chlorine, nitrous oxide, metallic fumes, and complex dust. The American Lung Association (ALA) also draws a connection between popcorn lung and vaping.

According to the ALA, diacetyl exists in many e-cigarette flavors. Although all major popcorn manufacturers have removed this chemical from their products, e-cigarette companies still add it for flavor. One study from Harvard found diacetyl present in the products of 39 out of 51 e-cigarette brands. Thus, many people are now directly breathing in the same chemical proven to cause serious and deadly lung conditions in factory workers. In addition, the study found two other dangerous chemicals: 2,3 pentanedione and acetoin. About 92% of e-cigarettes in the study contained at least one of these three chemicals.

The FDA has yet to prevent consumers from vaping. The FDA postponed the requirement for e-cigarette companies to submit full lists of their ingredients to the administration until 2022. In the meantime, products that could be causing chronic popcorn lung remain on the market – and in consumers’ pockets. Since e-cigarette companies currently do not have to list their ingredients, most people do not know what they are inhaling when they vape.

Many experts believe the popularity of vaping will ultimately lead to an increase in the number of cases of popcorn lung in the future. This, in turn, could lead to product liability claims against e-cigarette manufacturers. Speak to an e-cig or vape injury attorney if you believe vaping gave you popcorn lung.

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