It’s common for people in the vaping community to become concerned about certain ingredients that might be used in different e-liquids, and it always seems as though one group or another is raising a point of controversy about some potential harm. For some time now, many have been concerned about the possibility that their e-juices might contain acetoin, due to fears that the substance could cause them physical harm if inhaled. Such fears should never be dismissed out of hand, of course, since any potential harm should be evaluated on its own merits. So, what does the evidence actually suggest where acetoin is concerned. Should be concerned about acetoin in e-liquids?
First of all, it is important to understand that acetoin is a fairly common carbon molecule that is used by various bacteria as an energy store. It is also one of the two compounds that provide butter with its unmistakable taste. That latter attribute has led food manufacturers to utilize acetoin as a flavor enhancer in everything from apples and yogurt to butter, wheat, and maple syrup. It is colorless and has that wonderful buttery flavor that so many people love.
Acetoin has also been identified as one of the 599 cigarette additives that the tobacco companies used in their products as of 1994. At the time that these companies presented their ingredient lists to the US Department of Health and Human services, there was a great deal of concern over additives since no one really understood how burning these food additives would affect their properties. Some chemical compounds become toxic during the combustion process. Others become dangerous when vaporized and inhaled.
In its liquid form, it is generally accepted that acetoin is completely harmless to human health. That is one of the main reasons why some have turned to it as a replacement for diacetyl ever since medical studies on vaping suggested that the compound was a risk for humans. Diacetyl has long been used for flavoring in everything from butter and cheese to brown sugar, butterscotch, and even specialty tea flavors. Candy manufacturers, frozen food makers, and others have used the compound for years.
The problem is that in some of those work sites where diacetyl is made, workers have contracted lung disease that researchers believe can be directly traced to working with the compound and ingesting it on a daily basis. That led to concerns that even the liquid concentrations of the compound could be a threat to human health since those workers were breathing diacetyl vapors.
As a result of those fears, many companies began to reduce their use of diacetyl and replaced that compound with other flavoring additives like acetoin and acetyl propionyl – which are apparently similar in structure to diacetyl. To compound the worry, there have been few serious studies on these replacement compounds, leaving some to suggest that they could be dangerous as well.
The question that we need to ask then is this: does acetoin present a risk to human health when it is vaporized in e-liquid? On that question, there seems to be a great deal of disagreement. Many vaping enthusiasts have seemed to adopt a position that suggests that the compound is safe unless and until definitive proof is provided to the contrary. Naturally, that can lead to a false sense of security, but it comports with the natural human tendency to avoid harsh questions until the answers become too clear to avoid.
The opposing view suggests that the evidence for food flavoring dangers is too strong to dismiss. These people point to scientific studies of diacetyl, and its link to serious lung conditions like bronchiolitis obliterans, and wonder whether acetoin and similar flavorings might have the same level of risk when vaporized. Acetoin has, after all, been labeled by agencies like FEMA as a high priority substance that could pose a risk to respiratory health.
As acetoin has become more widely used, concerns have increased about its safety for humans. It is similar in structure to diacetyl, and has been found in locations where diacetyl is known to be used. That has led some researchers to believe that diacetyl could even be metabolized into acetoin inside the human body. In studies that attempted to identify the presence of acetoin in various factory settings, acetic acid was located, which is a known irritant to the respiratory tract. Wherever these flavorings are found in work settings, health effects seem to be discovered as well.
Workers exposed to vaporized diacetyl may have, in some instances, also been exposed to vaporized acetoin, since both compounds were often discovered in the same environment. About half of those workers are believed to have suffered nasal irritation due to exposure to vapor. And four out of every five experienced some sort of eye irritation. Skin irritation was experienced by 60% of those who worked with liquid flavoring production.
As might be expected, OSHA is somewhat leery of these flavorings due to diacetyl’s suspected role in causing popcorn lung. However, everyone should take every government agency’s opinion with a grain of salt when it comes to anything having anything to do with electronic cigarettes or e-juices. This is, after all, the same government that recently decided to pretend that electronic cigarette products are tobacco just so that it can claim the power to regulate and tax them. Independent verification of actual dangers will be needed before most vapers will believe the hype.
Moreover, the diacetyl that was found to be at fault in the microwave popcorn factory incident in the 1990s was inhaled in large concentrations – many times larger than is considered safe for human beings. Diacetyl is also present in cigarettes – as noted above – in concentrations that are up to one hundred times that of any diacetyl that has ever been identified in electronic cigarettes. And since popcorn lung has not been associated with cigarette usage, it is reasonable to conclude that even diacetyl may not be as risky as OSHA and many scientists would have e-cig users believe.
Acetone is used in place of diacetyl in some e-liquid flavors – notably those that are designed to have that creamy, buttery taste. For example, certain custards varieties might use it to provide the necessary taste needed to sell the flavor to the taste buds. Like other ingredients in the juice, the acetoin is vaporized when your electronic device is operated. You then inhale it into the mouth and the lungs.
Here’s where things get controversial, though. To date, there is no scientific evidence that suggests that acetoin in e-cigarettes – or diacetyl for that matter – have any appreciable negative impact on the lungs or any other aspect of human health when ingested in this manner. Remember, studies have demonstrated that diacetyl in cigarettes could not be linked to popcorn lung disease. The idea that acetoin can produce those effects in concentrations that are but a fraction of that found in tobacco cigarettes is almost laughable.
And yet, a Harvard study last year warned of just such an effect. It even went so far as to suggest that diacetyl in e-cigs could mean that those products are worse than the nicotine in traditional cigarettes – a claim that merely demonstrated an inability to even understand why tobacco cigarettes are dangerous. Had the Harvard researchers been paying attention, they might have been made aware of the numerous studies that demonstrated that nicotine is not what kills people. As South African researcher Michael Russell wrote in 1976, “People smoke for nicotine, but they die from tar.” Though few of today’s anti-nicotine zealots would admit it, Russell was onto something.
Nicotine does not kill people. It does not cause lung cancer, or any other health-threatening effects. Tar does those things. Carcinogens delivered to the body by the nicotine-delivery device – the cigarette – do all of those things. Nicotine has never been shown to be the killer in cigarettes. Neither is it a killer in electronic cigarettes. And yet we now see the opponents of electronic cigarettes using many of the scare tactics they used against nicotine as weapons in their war on e-cigs. And, as usual, they are focusing on exactly the wrong thing.
Across the Atlantic, our friends in the UK seem to be almost a mirror reflection of the situation here in the United States. Here, the public believes that e-cigs are largely safe, and certainly safer than tobacco products. At the same time, our government pretends that e-cigs are tobacco, and warns that they might be even worse than traditional tobacco cigarettes. Meanwhile, in the UK, the public seems to think that e-cigs are inherently dangerous. That view is starkly at odds with the UK government’s official support for e-cigs as a safer nicotine delivery system that should be supported for smoking cessation.
That British view is based on their own research into the danger posed by electronic cigarettes. Over there, these products have been weighed, they have been measured, and they have not been found wanting. Given their government’s current and avid support for vaping, one has to wonder how they ever missed the obvious dangers posed by things like acetoin – if indeed that compound is dangerous.
The fact is that they missed it because there are no demonstrable dangers. No research – including that done by Harvard or the Brits – has come close to demonstrating a link between acetoin and respiratory or other health problems. Now, obviously, anyone who has concerns about acetoin should simply choose liquids that don’t use it. They exist, after all. However, that choice should be made out of an overabundance of caution, and not because they blindly accept the propaganda presented by government bureaucrats with an agenda.