MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Researchers have an urgent warning for e-cigarette users. They say the chemicals used to flavor the liquids inhaled through the devices could be potentially harmful. Experts say they could cause vapers' lungs to become so scarred that they can no longer absorb oxygen. And as the industry grows, they're appealing to more and more children, teens and young adults.
They're billed as a "safer" alternative to smoking cigarettes. Many people who have smoked a majority of their lives say they gave cigarettes up completely after picking up vaping. But little research has been done about the potential health effects of e-cigarettes, and few regulations are out there to keep an eye on what's being put into these products.
"You can tell by the number of vape shops opening, you can tell by the number of vendors buying e-juices, and other kinds of stuff. It's really growing because people are finding a way...an alternative to smoking," said Cordell Huntley, owner of WiVape 2 in Pawleys Island.
Business is booming for the e-cigarette industry, but researchers are looking at the costs that could be paid by your health. According to the World Health Organization, $3 billion was spent in the United States alone on e-cigarettes in 2013, and those sales are expected to dramatically rise over the next 15 years.
"I think it's being sold as a safer alternative for patients who are trying to quit smoking. Maybe a safer alternative in the short term; I think the larger concerns are that people are doing it long term or picking it up as a new habit," said Director of Critical Care at Grand Strand Medical Center, Dr. Thad Golden. "Just like cigarettes in the 1950s, when they thought those were safe; we just don't know yet. I think there are still a lot of questions."
To dispel some of those questions, researchers at Harvard looked at what's exactly in the chemicals that flavor e-juices.
In a report published in December, they found that three chemicals are commonly found in flavors that are not only popular to vapers, but appeal to kids.
And the most noteworthy of those three was Diacetyl. It was recognized in the early 2000s, associated with a disease known as "popcorn lung."
"It's a relatively rare entity, and it was described in a popcorn factory where they were using flavor additives," Dr. Golden said. "In that case they were using them for popcorn, and it is safe to ingest those as far as the FDA is concerned, but it's not safe to inhale them. So the workers in the popcorn factory were inhaling these and came down with a pretty serious lung condition that in some cases was even fatal, and some of the same additives for flavoring are now being inhaled with some of the e-cigarette products."
The condition progressively scars the lung to the point that it can't absorb oxygen. The effects are irreversible, and experts say, in some cases, the only option a patient may have is a lung transplant.
"It's very scary, and in fact, some of the flavorings that were mentioned in the study were ones that are almost specifically geared towards kids like bubblegum - some of these flavors that might appeal to younger people," Dr. Golden said. "So I would be extremely cautious in anybody but certainly in younger patients."
In the study, Diacetyl was found in 39 of the 51 flavors tested. Many of them appeal to younger users with names like Cupcake, Blue Water Punch, and Alien Blood.
The industry appears to be becoming more transparent about what chemicals are in their products, though.
"If the vendor of the juice cannot provide me with a MSDS sheet, I'm not going to buy their juice," Huntley said. "I need a guarantee that there's no Diacetyl, that there's no other harmful chemicals in that juice that I'm giving my customers."
But according to the Harvard study, suppliers can't be so sure that what they are selling is safe. Researchers found that two companies who explicitly said their products did not contain Diacetyl, in fact did.
"I think the tides turned in this country, in a large part our attitudes towards smoking," Dr. Golden said. "I certainly think that I would hate to see it become more popular. I certainly think this Harvard study indicates that there needs to be more research into it, and hopefully, this will be a stimulus for that...I think it's a story that's still being written."
There's still more work to be done according to this study, more research into the potential effects of these chemicals. The experts involved in the report have recommended urgent action be taken to further investigate these concerns.