If you’re a regular vaper, you might’ve heard some of your fellow cohorts ask this question: “what is popcorn lung?” Unfortunately, it’s not a delightful-but-weirdly-named snack for when you get the munchies, but a pretty gnarly and irreversible lung disease. Are you wondering what the nitty-gritty is on popcorn lung, and what the risks are of getting it if you vape on-the-go while keeping it on the down-low, or smoke plain e-cigarettes on the reg? We’ve got the scoop right here.
What is Popcorn Lung?
In 2015, the United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published a report which put to rest the myth that vaping is harmless when it comes to your health. As summarized, samples of 51 different flavors of e-cigarettes were tested for the presence of a chemical called diacetyl. The importance of testing for these substances in types of vape oil (AKA e-juice or vape juice) is pretty straightforward: overexposure to them causes a lung disease known as bronchiolitis obliterans, or alternatively, obliterative bronchiolitis (OB). The nickname for this disease? You guessed it: popcorn lung.
So what happens when you get popcorn lung? Unfortunately, nothing anyone would particularly like. As the author of this article once reported for Tech Times:
“As the name suggests, those afflicted with the disease experience compression (and even obstruction) in their bronchioles (the minute airway branches in the lungs) due to the build-up of fibrosis, or scar tissue. Symptoms include dry coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.”
Unfortunately for smokers, this means that e-cigs are not a route to quitting smoking entirely; it also means that vaping flavored oil isn’t entirely great for you, either, depending on the kind of e-juice (more on that later). As of now, there is no cure for OB, unless you want a lung transplant.
But why is it called popcorn lung? Good question.
Why Is it Called Popcorn Lung?
No, it doesn’t make your lungs look like burst popcorn. (And if that were the case…ew.) Diacetyl, the harmful chemical that causes OB, is also used as a butter substitute in microwave popcorn and movie theater popcorn.
But what really made the nickname stick? The answer lies in a certain demographic that carries a high rate of infection. In 2000, eight former employees of Gilster Mary-Lee—a popcorn plant—were diagnosed with OB by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Subsequently, this prompted NIOSH to conduct an investigation as to the cause, ultimately discovering that workers who had more exposure to diacetyl at the plant were more likely to develop the illness.
Of course, as the existence of diacetyl in e-cig juice indicates, the chemical also pops up in a number of other things artificially flavored for consumption, according to Joseph Allen, the lead author of the 2015 NIOSH report.
“Recognition of the hazards associated with inhaling flavoring chemicals started with ‘Popcorn Lung’ over a decade ago,” Allen told the press at the time. “However, diacetyl and other related flavoring chemicals are used in many other flavors beyond butter-flavored popcorn, including fruit flavors, alcohol flavors, and, we learned in our study, candy flavored e-cigarettes.”
Can You Get Popcorn Lung From Vaping Weed?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information out there on whether vaping weed will give you popcorn lung. (There are, however, a number of Reddit forums dedicated to this particular topic.) Overall, this is where common sense comes into play. If diacetyl is not listed as an ingredient, your risk of developing popcorn lung is relatively low.
And remember: diacetyl is a flavoring agent. If you’re smoking non-flavored juice, chances are it’s less likely to contain it. Luckily, a number of stores have already removed vape juices with high levels of diacetyl from their shelves, so even though you should always check the list of ingredients for whatever juice you buy, you can breathe (and vape) a little easier.
Final Hit: Should You Worry About Popcorn Lung?
So, should vaping enthusiasts worry about popcorn lung? At a cursory level, it couldn’t hurt. We’d advise caution above all else. Even though vape juice is less likely to include diacetyl as an ingredient, just keep an eye out for it.(And remember, science says vaping gives you all of the healthy perks of cannabinoids without the downside of filling your lungs with smoke. Healthy is healthy!)
Overall advice: don’t get popcorn lung and happy vaping!