Health Concerns About Vaping in Light of Recent Incidents in the US

Inhaling nicotine vapor from an e-cig
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Vaping has spiked significantly in the US over the past few years, particularly among teenagers and young adults. According to a study conducted earlier this year, about 3.6 million high school seniors claimed to have vaped in 2018, up 9% from 2017. It’s illegal for minors to use e-cigarettes, but clearly that’s not preventing the millions who have vaped or continue to vape. But vaping is not just popular among minors. In fact, it’s estimated that about 9 million adults vape, according to new CDC data

That being said, never smoking teens are much less likely to vape. Meaning it acts as a deterrent. They aren’t vaping often. Data shows they don’t seem to be addicted. Most youth smokers start with cigarettes and smoking is declining as vaping increases. Smoking rates have declined from 28.5% in the 90’s to 8.1% in the last couple years.

While these studies showcase big numbers, given the recent events, many health officials have been encouraging people to stop vaping.

First Glance

  • Vape pens appear as an e-cig and include the act of inhaling and exhaling vapor produced by heated concentrates or dry materials.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hundreds of cases of a mysterious lung disease across the nation seemingly caused by vaping are currently under investigation. 
  • Contaminants, poor hardware, and harmful ingredients such as Vitamin E oil have all been contributing factors in the deaths amongst vapers.
  • Health officials are urging people to stop vaping until more research is done on what exactly could be the link between vaping and lung damage. 
  • For avoidance of doubt: this issue is related to additives likely only present in THC products, not nicotine vaping. This is most common on the black market.
  • THC vapers are advised to avoid street-bought THC cartridges.

So, What Exactly is Vaping?

Unlike smoking, which involves burning nicotine or cannabis, vaping involves inhaling a product that has only been heated to the point that it creates a vapor, which is inhaled, without actually burning it. The process requires the use of battery-powered smoking devices, referred to as e-cigarettes or vape pens, which have cartridges that are filled with a substance that typically contains nicotine or cannabis, along with different flavors and chemicals. 

When the substance is heated to a certain degree, a vapor forms, which is then inhaled. It has been assumed that vaping is a safer mode of consuming nicotine products or cannabis because it does not cause the same level of irritation that smoking does.

But now, in light of the recent anti-vaping propaganda in the media and the string of incidents that have landed hundreds of people in the hospital and even a handful dead, many are wondering just how dangerous vaping is.

Recent Events That Raise Concerns Over Vaping

In an effort to curb traditional smoking and to help smokers wean themselves off of cigarettes, vaping has been advocated, to some degree, as a safer alternative.

But with recent incidents involving people being hospitalized with acute respiratory illnesses and some deaths being reported, the health concerns over vaping are being raised even more strongly. As of this writing, five deaths have been linked to e-cigarettes and vaping. While these devices have been on the market for years, it’s only been within the past few months that these health incidents have been reported. The first vaping-related death was reported near the end of August 2019 in Illinois, and a second death in Oregon was reported only a few days later. Since then, three more deaths have been added to the total, and health officials are concerned that there are more to come — even if it’s CBD vape oil as claimed by the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC).

The majority of patients are young adults around the age of 19, but the victims who have died from the illness were adults, with one victim 65 years of age. So far, the symptoms related to these mysterious illnesses start gradually and are characterized by shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing, fatigue, difficulty breathing, or diarrhea and vomiting. Hospital visits typically come within days or even as long as a few weeks.  

Vaping CBD

Generally, vaping issues have stemmed from illicit THC products containing elements of CBD. In fact, some counterfeit brands containing illicit THC products — especially those bought at only $20 online —  were recovered by police and contained 7,000 times the allowable level of a pesticide. Unfortunately, this has left many in the dark about the quality of their cannabis e-liquid product.

While there are a number of CBD vape juices available on the market, it should be made from food-grade ingredients such as PG, VG and CBD extract. To clear up some of the haze, CBD vape juice (or CBD vape oil) is dissimilar to CBD oil. 

Contrary to what the unschooled have and still believe, CBD oil has more viscosity and is made with a much thicker consistency compared to vape juice and isn’t appropriate for vaping in any way or format. Doing so is incredibly harsh and quite problematic to inhale, therefore, for obvious reasons, it’s not advised.

What is it about consuming nicotine products or CBD through vaping that could be leading to such serious illnesses, particularly in terms of acute symptoms? While health officials are still trying to determine the exact link between vaping and illness, they believe it’s the chemicals within the product that is being vaped that could be the culprit. 

The Real Cause

Contaminants that may be present in cannabis products in general – especially those that are purchased off the street or through unlicensed sources – could be the cause of lung damage. Further, there’s speculation about a particular oil residue that people who have fallen ill may have in common. More specifically, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discovered the same vitamin E-based oil in cannabis products that have been vaped by a number of individuals who have recently fallen ill. The main source? Illegally sold THC cartridges.

What’s interesting is that these illnesses seem to be popping up all within a very short period of time, which is curious considering the fact that vape pens have been popular for many years now — and even more recently CBD vape pens.

So, What About CBD and Nicotine?

That said, there’s no concrete evidence that this is the exact source of danger to vaping nicotine or CBD vape juice. There hasn’t yet been a specific product that has been clearly identified in each case. The New York Health Department has investigated the issue and found the best possible explanation so far is: vitamin E acetate. 

Further, it’s still not evident whether or not these cases involve a common cause or are stemming from other diseases that have similar symptoms. All cases that have been confirmed to be related to vaping involve some form of ‘lipoid pneumonia‘, a non-infectious version of the illness that seems to develop when Vitamin E oil is inhaled. Many of the patients experienced fluid build-up in the lungs, which can be a life-threatening condition and inhibits oxygen intake and circulation that the body needs to function properly.

So, Where Are We Now?

The situation is still very new for healthcare practitioners. There has yet to be a treatment for the condition to be developed. In almost every case, antibiotics and steroids have been used to get the condition under control. But health officials are still unsure about whether or not such treatments have actually been helping patients get better. Physicians are now being asked to collect samples to be sent to the FDA for testing. 

From there, FDA health officials will then test for a wide array of chemicals, including tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, (the psychoactive chemical compound in marijuana plants that causes a high), nicotine, additives, pesticides, toxins, heavy metals, and other contaminants that could cause damage to the lungs and overall respiratory system. Officials are working on pinpointing the exact products used in e-cigarettes, their sources, how they were used, and whether or not there were other ingredients added.

Such data will be vital to coming up with a clearer picture of what exactly could be causing these illnesses to arise after vaping. 

Final Thoughts

Further research will certainly need to be conducted to uncover the exact mechanism that is linking vaping to this illness. 

It will also be interesting to see whether litigation against companies that develop and market e-cigarettes will soon follow. In the meantime, if you’re a vaper here’s a bit of advice: if you have illicit THC cartridges throw them out — no ifs, no buts, just throw them away. As for nicotine or CBD vape juice, you have nothing to worry about so long as they’re purchased from reputable suppliers.

Lastly, be sure to stay informed and proceed with caution, particularly as more information unfolds regarding vaping and its potential health risks.