Diethylene Glycol in Electronic Cigarettes: What They Never Told You!

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by: James Dunworth

By Paul Bergen and James Dunworth

FDA Alert: Electronic cigarettes contain diethylene glycol

Speaker icon blaring out alert.

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.

A 3d man scratches his head while standing next to a question mark.

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.)

Deadly DG

3d Represenation of diethlyne glycol.

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?

A women inhales from a plastic container.

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

Using an e-cigarette.

“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.”

Professor Michael Siegel

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!

Also see: 

Are Electronic Cigarettes Safe: The Shocking Truth
Propylene Glcyol: What you need to know
Vegetable Gycerine in E-Cigarettes: Is it safe?

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27 Responses to “Diethylene Glycol in Electronic Cigarettes: What They Never Told You!”

  1. Michael J. McFadden January 16, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Japan Tobacco’s estimate of 750,000 cigarettes could well be accurate (I haven’t investigated DG myself at all.) The reason I say it could be accurate is that it fits in with other examinations I’ve done of other claims and elements relating to active smoking.

    I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that nonsmokers are being forced to breathe arsenic, a deadly rat poison, when people smoke around them. Sounds bad, eh? What you *DON’T* ever hear is that to get the same perfectly safe amount of arsenic that the EPA has set for a pint of tap water that you’d have to sit in a smoking bar/restaurant for roughly 165,000 hours. And note: you’d *still* be perfectly safe … unless you want to consider drinking a couple of glasses of tap water to be deadly.

    Antismokers also warned that nonsmokers were being forced to inhale ultra-deadly Polonium 210, the poison that was used, at the small dose of just 5 millicuries, to kill a Russian KGB spy a few years ago. What they *DON’T* tell you is that in order to get that dose of Po210 you’d have to sit in that smokey bar/restaurant for roughly three TRILLION years. (That’s 30 billion centuries, or about 300 times as long as our entire universe has existed.)

    They also warn about “Formaldehyde, used to preserve dead corpses.” (I’ve always wondered where the Antismokers keep their “live corpses”?) What they don’t tell you is that the formaldehyde concentration in the air of that smokey bar or restaurant is about .007 parts per million (ppm). A year or two ago there was a scare about formaldehyde in baby shampoo: tests had found levels of 610ppm in it. Do a bit of math and you’ll find the baby shampoo had 87,000 times the formaldehyde concentration as the air of your corner bar … and yet the government quickly put out notices to the media that the 610ppm amounted to simply “trace levels” of the substance and posed no threat even if you lathered up your little Donnie Dumplings with it every day of his little life.

    Remember: Antismokers lie. That holds true for e-cigarettes just as much as for cigarettes themselves. Read “The Lies Behind The Smoking Bans” at http://TinyURL.com/SmokingBanLies and you’ll see them in action.

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”
    P.S. Be careful if you give your kids orange juice to drink: it has literally hundreds of micrograms of the deadly Class A Carcinogen ethyl alcohol in it! Even if your cherished children survive they’ll probably grow up to be raging alcoholics if we use Antismoking reasoning.

    • guy September 29, 2013 at 12:28 am #

      http://www.lewrockwell.com/2010/07/paul-fetters/the-e-cigarette-vs-the-fda/

      This link explains the true role of diethylene glycol in this whole scam. It’s not in an amount that is at all harmful in e-cigs, in fact, the majority of the e-cig cartridges tested did not have any diethylene glycol. It has propylene glycol which is completely safe and is also placed in some antifreezes, but to make it safer, it is not carcinogenic in that manner.

      • Michael J. McFadden September 30, 2013 at 8:14 am #

        Guy, I have just had a book published (TobakkoNacht — The Antismoking Endgame) that devotes a chapter to vaping studies. I’ve put a number of selections from the book online for people to read, and one of them actually addresses the study you’re referencing. The study actually found VERY small amounts of DEG and they only found them in ONE out of eighteen of the e-liquids they tested. Go to TobakkoNacht.com and click on Book Selections and then on Of Vapors And Vapers and you’ll see it explored in detail.

        – MJM

  2. James January 16, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    Thanks as always for your detailed comments, Michael – we covered some of the points here: http://www.ecigarettedirect.co.uk/ashtray-blog/2012/02/what-is-in-a-cigarette.html My opinion is that these ingredients are emphasised for shock value, without any reference to “it’s the dose that makes the poison.” Unfortunately, cigarettes remain very unhealthy, even if we are unsure exactly what it is that causes harm.

    • Michael J. McFadden January 16, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

      VERY excellent blog post there James!

      One of the nice points about that approach is that the Antis can’t accuse us of cherry-picking: After all, we’re simply analyzing the chemicals that THEY picked out as the “worst” and then showing that even their “worst” can’t hurt you! (At least not in terms of secondary smoke exposure.)

      In terms of primary smoking, as you know, I’ve never argued that smoking is a healthy thing to do. It’s enjoyable but its carcinogens and particulates clearly present a health problem. E-Cigs don’t have those and for a lot of people they seem to give about the same level of enjoyment without the negatives.

      I don’t give e-cigs a total carte-blanche though. We won’t absolutely know until millions upon millions of people have regularly vaped over a period of thirty to sixty years whether they can cause any real harm, but given what we seem to know at the moment they certainly look to me like a pretty good health bet. Once the KPs (The Krazy Prohibitionists) have been rounded up from the daisy fields and put back into their KPKPs (Krazy Prohibitionist Kare Pens) safely away from sharp or burning objects and most definitely safely away from taxpayer money, it’s possible that nicotine and e-cigs will be looked at and accepted as no more harmful or disturbing than caffeine and coffee (or Coca-Cola).

      Michael J. McFadden
      Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains” but not a doctor — although I’d be willing to accept playing Nurse Ratchet in charge of the KPKPs. Heck, I’d put Glantz, Arnott, et al on permanent KP duty and that’d be the end of THAT problem! ;>

  3. James January 16, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

    “One of the nice points about that approach is that the Antis can’t accuse us of cherry-picking: After all, we’re simply analyzing the chemicals that THEY picked out as the “worst” and then showing that even their “worst” can’t hurt you!”

    I think it was Professor Siegel who pointed out that when you start making up untruths about smoking (or cherry picking the studies that support the case while ignoring the ones that don’t, as in the case of SHS) you risk the danger that smokers won’t believe smoking is bad for them. This has really come to the fore recently. By making up lies about e-cigarettes (many of which has since been abandoned due – I think that is why the opposition has fallen back on the de-normalisation argument) they have lost a lot of trust and respect. Plus, because so many vapers have gained an interest in the science behind vaping, and to a lesser extent to the science behind smoking, their misrepresentations have really been exposed recently.

    ” E-Cigs don’t have those and for a lot of people they seem to give about the same level of enjoyment without the negatives.”

    Which is great! I think people should have freedom of choice when it comes to what they do with their bodies (although the addiction issue does cloud the issue – do we have freedom of choice when we are addicted?), but if people can get the same enjoyment with a fraction of the harm that’s fantastic.

    “We won’t absolutely know until millions upon millions of people have regularly vaped over a period of thirty to sixty years whether they can cause any real harm, but given what we seem to know at the moment they certainly look to me like a pretty good health bet.”

    David Sweanor once said “”If there is anyone who believes cigarettes are no more hazardous than e-cigarettes I’d recommend a remedial course in basic sciences.” http://www.ecigarettedirect.co.uk/interviews/david-sweanor-2.html). But as you point out we don’t have have a lot of long term studies – what we do have is short term data which show dramatic improvements in health.

  4. Michael J. McFadden January 16, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    The addiction issue is almost as convoluted as the health issue. Go to a medical library and check out the “Journal Of Addiction Medicine” (it’s undergone some title/editorial changes, particularly in 1980 and 1993) and look up smoking or nicotine. The view of nicotine as an addictive drug has undergone a lot of change in the last 30 years or so, and I’m pretty sure that most of that change is political, stemming from a double-barreled push by the decreased influence of BigT and the increased influence of the Antismokers.

    I believe it was a paper by Henningfield and Benowitz that really set the ball rolling on this whole “nicotine is the most addictive drug” nonsense. They basically took the basic word and its popular and scientific meanings and redefined it in order to target smoking. The redefinition opened up such ridiculous avenues as enabling one to reduce the addictiveness of a drug just by making it more expensive or by putting it out for open sale in convenience stores — not exactly the way most of us (or the medical world) had previously defined the concept of addiction.

    But… the reason for looking at that Journal: go to the back issues and examine the year’s table of contents once every five years (e.g. 1965,1970,1975…) and see how often smoking and nicotine are mentioned. You’ll find they were almost nonexistent until the 1980s and have steadily climbed, along with the political/monetary power of the antismoking movement, ever since. The amount of growth is astounding. Sure, *some* of it may be scientifically based, but I think most of it is truly just political and financially based.

    When was the last time you popped down to the corner drug store after making a New Year’s Eve resolution to kick your 20-year-long heroin IV habit and picked up a couple of packs of C-*H*-olet Strawberry Starburst Heroin Replacement Therapy packs of chewing gum?

    It’s a horse (no pun intended) of a different color.

    – Michael

    • James January 16, 2013 at 11:29 pm #

      The nicotine thing is a complicated issue IMO, especially since some research states that hand to mouth part of smoking forms a larger part of the reason people can’t quit smoking than is generally acknowledged.

      But the fact that some people want to quit and can’t also complicates the debate. Anyone who makes the decision to smoke, being aware of the dangers, should of course be allowed to do so. But what about people who want to quit smoking but can’t, for whatever reason. Or maybe they think they want to quit but at some level are making the decision not too? I seem to remember chatting to Paul Bergen about some research that the addiction is not that powerful, but that the decision to smoke any one cigarette is logical (being pleasurable e.t.c. and, on it’s own, not that bad).

      Anyway, I think the issue is perhaps more complex than is generally made out by both sides.

  5. Michael J. McFadden January 16, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    That should have read:

    C-*H*-icolet

    – MJM

  6. Kristin Noll Marsh January 16, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    Nice post!

    For what it’s worth, when I was researching this topic for my “ANTZ Check” series, we came up with two calculations:

    1) The amount of diethylene glycol reported in the FDA test was “approximately 1%” of the liquid. The average e-cigarette cartridge contains approximately 1 ml of liquid, making the amount found approximately 0.01 ml. This is significant because the estimated oral lethal dose for undiluted DEG is about 1.6 oz (47 ml) for an adult human. https://cglapps.chevron.com/msdspds/MSDSDetailPage.aspx?docDataId=74256

    2) The FDA did not report finding DEG in the vapor it tested, so someone would then have to DRINK 4,700 ml of contaminated e-cigarette liquid in a short time period in order to get to a fatal dose of DEG!

  7. Jon Burnham January 28, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    I have just read about this on the Daily Mail too. All I know is that since starting to e-vape, I have not felt a need to smoke and feel a whole lot better. I am certain that e-vaping is not particularly good for you – but from my health’s point of view – it is the much better lesser evil. I am a keen supporter of these products and am on a crusade to make sure people at least give tehm a whirl before passing judgement. Clearly there are onyl 2-3 actula doubtful chemicals in e-liquids as against over 1000 in tobacco. There are too mnay vested interests trying to ban these including the drugs comapnies for whom the patches and other ‘quit-smoking’ aids are worth a fortune worldwide. Please folks, try Googling “Electronic Cigarette UK” and make up your OWN minds. Do not be swayed by doubtful ‘sponsored’ reasearch by those who have there own keen self-interest to see these things classed as bad as a Class A drug.

    • James Dunworth January 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

      You might want to see what Clive Bates, former director of Action on Smoking and Health, had to say about the article: http://www.clivebates.com/?p=806

      Here’s an excerpt:

      Unbelievably ridiculous and irresponsible article. E-cigarettes are at least 99% safer than cigarettes. People smoke mostly for the nicotine, which is a widely used recreational drug usually taken by smoking tobacco. But it is not nicotine that does the damage in smoking, it is particles of burnt tobacco (tar) and hot gases that cause the cancer, emphysema and heart disease. E-cigarettes have none of these hazardous emissions . Articles like this are real-world dangerous, because they may discourage people from making a potentially life-saving switch from cigs to e-cigs.

      • Jon Burnham January 28, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

        Dead on James!! Thank you, my feelings exactly – although, checking my last rant – they don’t help with speeling much :-)

        I think we are seeing dark forces at work, these guys work for Mordor.

        J.

  8. john January 31, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

    James I think the wine contamination scandal was in Austria , it certainly wasn’t Australian wine!

    DG is marginally cheaper than PG, it has turned up , in things like toothpaste, mostly in situations where the manufactures margins have been forced down to levels of ‘1 or 2 cents in the dollar’.

    • James Dunworth February 3, 2014 at 10:11 am #

      Apologies, John, will have to go and double check that data!

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