By Paul Bergen and James Dunworth
FDA Alert: Electronic cigarettes contain diethylene glycol
Four years ago the FDA said they had found diethylene glycol (DG) in e-cigarettes. (See The FDA, the MHRA and The Electronic Cigarette for more information.)
What wasn’t reported was that that traces of DG had only been found in one e-cigarette, belonging to one brand, at levels of 1%, OR that smokers are already exposed to DG in tobacco smoke.
Shortly after the study, the claim that “e-cigarettes contain diethylene glycol ” began to spread. Articles with titles like “FDA: Electronic cigarettes are a no-no” spread not just through America but around the world, and smokers were urged not to switch to the products. As a result, thousands of smokers have chosen to remain with tobacco cigarettes which are estimated to kill between a third and a half of all smokers.
Yet no subsequent analysis of e-cigarettes has found traces of DG. And even in the case of the FDA, it showed up in only one out of the 16 e-cigarettes tested, at very low levels, and was only reported in the eliquid, not the vapour smokers inhale.
So how did it happen? One theory for the contamination is that it arose from manufacturers using nicotine or propylene glycol produced on the cheap. (DG is used as a tobacco humectant and can arise as a byproduct of propylene glycol: see Are electronic cigarettes safe on the CASAA website.)
When Dr Calhoun prescribed a new medicine to several of her patients, one of them a close friend, she didn’t know that it contained diethylene glycol.
Most incidents of DG poisoning have been traced to contaminated medicine. The first incidence occurred in the US in the 1930’s, when S.E. Massengil produced a drug called Elixir Sulfanilamide. Responding to a demand for their drug in a liquid form, the company dissolved the drug in diethylene glycol and released it untested.
The move resulted in the deaths of 100 patients – including Dr Calhoun’s patients. Torn with guilt and remorse, she later wrote:
“…to realize that six human beings, all of them my patients, one of them my best friend, are dead because they took medicine that I prescribed for them innocently, and to realize that that medicine which I had used for years in such cases suddenly had become a deadly poison in its newest and most modern form, as recommended by a great and reputable pharmaceutical firm in Tennessee: well, that realization has given me such days and nights of mental and spiritual agony as I did not believe a human being could undergo and survive. I have known hours when death for me would be a welcome relief from this agony.”
(Letter by Dr. A.S. Calhoun, October 22, 1937)
Ironically, S.E. Massengil was later purchased by Glaxosmithkline, which both produces competing products to e-cigarettes and has funded a campaign against e-cigarettes.
Clusters of deaths have continued. In India, 21 died after being treated with medicine containing 18.5% dg. Most recently, 84 Nigerian children died after using a contaminated medicine called “My Pinkin Baby”. Yet the clusters were caused not by inhalation, but by ingestion.
Other than in medicines, DG has been found in toothpastes and wine. These have not resulted in any deaths, although Australia recalled so much wine that it ended up burning it in a power station to create electricity and mixing it with salt to melt ice.
While DG can no longer be used in either drugs or food, it does have many useful applications. These uses extend to tobacco – DG is used to keep tobacco moist and as an ingredient in Philip Morris filters.
More information: See Klaus Kneale’s article on ecig advanced: Diethylene glycol: A History Lesson.
Is inhaling DG bad for you?
We wanted to find out how bad DG in an electronic cigarette would be, and at what level it would cause harm to vapers (e-cigarette users).
Unfortunately, it is unclear in the literature as to how dangerous DG when inhaled. Health Canada’s toxicity report does not even mention inhalation as a concern. Studies have been carried out on rats, with the rats forced to inhale DG at various concentrations over several weeks. However, these only lead to localised irritation, and we could find no incidences where inhalation of DG has caused harm to human.
Diethylene glycol has been used as a direct ingredient in cigarettes – according to Japan Tobacco, which used it for 17 years, a user would have to smoke 750,000 cigarettes before inhaling a lethal dose. (Source: New Scientist. No comment on health claims from tobacco companies in the 1980’s – we’re just reporting what they said ) Diethylene glycol is also a component of cigarette smoke (see The Chemical Components of Tobacco and Tobacco Smoke).
According to the WHO, DG is not a concern if found in the open air, but of course that is not the same as if you were inhaling it directly from an electronic cigarette.
Implications for Smokers and Vapers
“A product that delivers nicotine, traces of carcinogens, and even diethylene glycol is obviously much safer than a product which delivers nicotine, huge levels of carcinogens, diethylene glycol, forty other carcinogens, and 10,000 other chemicals and toxins.”
Though the toxicity levels in regards to inhalation are uncertain, it is not a substance that we need or desire in e-cigarettes. However, what the FDA found was not evidence of a dangerous product but of an uncharacteristic dirty sample. The scare value of DG was enough to taint e-cigarettes, and has been used to argue that e-cigarettes should be banned.
Perhaps the real lesson here is that there is a need for quality control in any produced good, and we should not be so blinded by how wonderful a product might be (and e-cigarettes are a miracle product to be sure) to lose sight of the necessity of making sure that each and every one of them is as safe as they can be.
So to answer a few basic questions:
What are the symptoms of diethylene glycol poisoning?
Poisoning by DG can be difficult to determine as there are many different symptoms . However, early symptoms can include altered mental status, central nervous system depression, coma and mild hypertension.
Is there diethylene glycol glycol in my e-cigarette?
Highly unlikely. Thousands of e-cigarettes have now been tested, and so far dg has only been found in one e-cigarette. In any case, the remote possibility of dg in e-cigarettes is probably better than the certainty of dg in tobacco smoke.
How do I avoid any possibility of diethylene glycol in my e-cigarette?
By making sure your supplier is reputable. Good quality control rules out any source of DG. In the UK, members of the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association send eliquid to government approved laboratories for testing to ensure that there are no impurities in the eliquid. At ECigaretteDirect we also manufacture our own eliquid from UK sourced pharmaceutical grade nicotine, which is guarnanteed to be over 99.99% pure.
What if there were some diethylene glycol in my e-cigarette?
DG is not good for you. But you would probably not notice it if there was a low concentration, and a single instance of using an e-cigarette with DG would probably be nothing to worry about. Indeed, at the levels found by the FDA you would have to DRINK 4700 ml of the eliquid before ingesting a fatal dose of DG (source: Wivapers).
Do you know anything about diethylene glycol inhalation? We’d love to hear from you!
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