Majority of Flavored E-Cigarettes Contain Harmful Chemicals, Study Says

Harvard School of Public Health research found diacetyl, a chemical linked to respiratory disease, in most e-cig flavors.

If you still think e-cigarettes are a harmless alternative to smoking, a Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) study has news for you: More than 75 percent of flavored e-cigarettes it tested contain a harmful chemical called diacetyl.

Diacetyl is a flavoring agent that has been linked to the respiratory disease bronchiolitis obliterans, nicknamed “Popcorn Lung” because it was first seen in popcorn factory workers. People suffering from Popcorn Lung are constantly coughing, wheezing, and experiencing shortness of breath.

HSPH’s study tested 51 e-cigarette flavors for diacetyl and two other chemicals linked to respiratory problems, acetoin and 2,3-pentanedione. They found diacetyl in 39 of the flavors, acetoin in 46, and 2-3 pentanedione in 23. The researchers noted that some flavors that likely appeal to kids and teenagers—like cotton candy, cupcake, and the unfortunately named “fruit squirts”—were among the chemical-ridden varieties.

David Christiani, the study’s co-author and a professor of environmental genetics at HSPH, said in a statement that it’s important to remember that e-cigarettes’ health risks are not limited to nicotine:

“Since most of the health concerns about e-cigarettes have focused on nicotine, there is still much we do not know about e-cigarettes. In addition to containing varying levels of the addictive substance nicotine, they also contain other cancer-causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and as our study shows, flavoring chemicals that can cause lung damage.”

Despite studies like this one, e-cigarette use has risen exponentially since they were introduced to the market. The CDC released a report earlier this year, in fact, saying that use tripled among middle and high school students from 2013 to 2014. Proposed legislation to raise the smoking age in Boston from 18 to 21, however, might help curtail the habit.


Jamie Ducharme Jamie Ducharme, Contributor jducharme@bostonmagazine.com