Fact Check

Black Hole Lung

The Sun newspaper reports that a man "burned a hole" in his lung by vaping, but the story was suspiciously light on medical information.

Published Oct. 21, 2015


[green-label]Claim:[/green-label] A British man burned a hole in his lung by vaping (i.e., using e-cigarettes).


[green-label]Origins:[/green-label]  On 20 October 2015, the British tabloid The Sun published an article headlined "Vaping Burned a Hole in My Lungs" which focused on the potential dangers of e-cigarettes and vaping, reporting that a man named Richard Courtney had "burned a hole" in his lung by using one of the devices. Photographs of the devices in question (a Kangertech brand Subtank and eLeaf iStick 30W) were included with the story:

Richard was walking home from a mate’s house when he tasted fluid and started coughing.

He said: “Then it felt like I’d got a trapped nerve in my shoulder. In the morning I had a really tight chest and couldn’t breathe properly.

“I went to hospital. One of the nurses there put my vape on an oxygen tube and showed that it was spitting liquid out.”

Richard, from Horley, Surrey, was told his right lung was working at just 25 per cent capacity.

Missing from the newspaper's reporting were details such as the date of Courtney's first hospital admission, the specific condition for which he was purportedly hospitalized, and any information about how such an injury was diagnosed (other than that the nurse placed his vape device in an "oxygen tube" and determined it was "spitting out liquid"). Also absent from the report was any clarification from parties other than Courtney regarding the nature of the purported injury. For instance, no doctors chimed in to explain whether it was possible to burn a hole in one's lung (and if so, whether it was possible for that injury to occur from using an e-cigarette).

It appeared readers were meant to infer that very hot e-liquid shot out of the vaporizer's tank into the injured man's mouth (without causing damage), then traveled down his throat (similarly not leaving any burns) before landing inside his lung and "burning a hole" in it. We were unable to find any reports of lung injuries that even remotely matched the Sun's claim, but presumably such an adverse reaction would have previously befallen marijuana smokers, regular smokers, chefs, firemen, and others regularly exposed to inhalation of fumes or steam at a high temperature. Moreover, Courtney's device (while very common) was on the low end of wattage among vaping "mods," a number of which are capable of wattages nearly ten times the amount reported.

Given the relative newness of vaping, e-cigarettes are commonly the subject of rumors based on confusion about how the devices function. "Spitback" (accidental swallowing or aspiration of heated liquid droplets) is a common complaint among vapers, but most users describe the experience as a mild inconvenience and not a grave injury requiring hospitalization.

While Courtney's claim provided a compelling cautionary tale about e-cigarettes and vaping, we were unable to find any information to indicate the injury he described was even possible, much less likely to occur in the manner described. Even if a "burn" to the lung was a possible outcome of e-cigarette use (unlikely given that the fluid would need to bypass the mouth and throat entirely), the equipment used by Courtney was on the low-end of wattage for vaping devices. Courtney may have been hospitalized as a result of his e-cigarette use in some fashion, but it was unlikely a condition that occurred in the manner described by the Sun.

On 22 October 2015, the Telegraph published an article titled "Man left with hole in lung after e-cigarette spits out burning nicotine." That piece repeated claims made by The Sun but didn't indicate that they had independently verified any claims made by Courtney or the original article. Neither newspaper confirmed whether the injury was possible as described via a medical professional.


[green-label]Last updated:[/green-label] 22 October 2015

[green-label]Originally published:[/green-label] 21 October 2015

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.