Vaping Is Linked to Deadly, Yet-to-Be-Named Lung Disease

A mysterious vaping-related lung illness is associated with five recent deaths.

Posted Sep 08, 2019

In recent weeks, public health officials across the United States have scrambled to identify the cause of a mysterious and potentially lethal vaping-related respiratory illness.

At the time of this writing, the yet-to-be-named vaping-linked lung disease is being blamed for at least five deaths in the U.S. and has landed numerous previously healthy individuals in intensive care units.

On September 6, 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an urgent investigation notice regarding vaping and the at least 450 U.S. cases of an "outbreak of lung illness associated with using e-cigarette products" scattered across 33 states and one territory:

"U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), state and local health departments, and other clinical and public health partners are investigating a multi-state outbreak of severe pulmonary disease associated with e-cigarette product (devices, liquids, refill pods, and/or cartridges) use. This investigation is ongoing and has not identified a cause, but all reported cases have a history of using e-cigarette products."

The CDC and FDA are actively encouraging anyone who vapes to consider not using any e-cigarette products (listed above) while this investigation is ongoing. If you or someone you know uses e-cigarette products and is currently experiencing symptoms associated with this lung illness outbreak, the current recommendation is to "seek medical care promptly."

The symptoms of this puzzling vaping-related lung illness (2019) include: 

  • Shortness of breath, cough, or chest pain.
  • Nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting.
  • Fever, fatigue, or weight loss.
  • According to the CDC, "Some patients have reported that their symptoms developed over a few days, while others have reported that their symptoms developed over several weeks. A pulmonary infection does not appear to be causing the symptoms, which have generally not improved with antibiotic treatment alone." 
Stocksnapper/Shutterstock
Source: Stocksnapper/Shutterstock

Have Vaping Risks Been Widely Underestimated? 

In 2015, researchers from Stanford University Medical Center published a study (Roditis & Halpern-Felsher, 2015) which found that most teens had a misconception that smoking cannabis or e-cigarette vaping is harmless. Although many adolescents reported being aware of public health warnings about the harm of smoking traditional cigarettes, many had misinterpreted "Smoking is bad for you" warnings as somehow implying that vaping was "beneficial."

"Kids [in this survey] were really good at describing the harmful things that happen with cigarette smoking, but when we asked about other products, there was a lot of confusion," Maria Roditis of Stanford University said in a statement.

"We're good at delivering messaging that cigarettes are harmful, but we need to do a better job with other products that teens may smoke," co-author Bonnie Halpern-Felsher added. "We don't want the message kids to get to be 'cigarettes are bad, so everything else might be OK.'"

In 2015, the CDC published a warning that middle- and high-school use of vaping products among students had tripled between 2013 and 2014. Although teenagers currently smoke fewer traditional cigarettes than at any time in recent history, their rate of e-cigarette use and marijuana vaping is on the rise. Vaping is now the most popular form of "nicotine delivery" among adolescents. In 2018, a CDC federal survey found that 7.5 percent of high school seniors had vaped marijuana using pen cartridges (e.g., weed vape pens) designed for vaping cannabinoid products containing THC. 

In the YouTube clip below, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) discusses the uptick in vaping among teenagers in recent years.

Some marijuana industry projections estimate that, by 2022, revenue generated from the sale of cannabis concentrates specifically manufactured for vaping devices could reach $8.4 billion. That said, the CDC strongly encourages people not to use bootleg vaping pen cartridges or unregulated products. 

Citing recent vaping-related illnesses, this week California health officials issued a warning against using weed vape pens and encouraged consumers to stay away from illicit cannabis vape products.

The CDC will continue to update their reports of confirmed and probable cases. Their September 6, 2019 statement concludes:

"The investigation has not identified any specific substance or e-cigarette product that is linked to all cases. Many patients report using e-cigarette products with liquids that contain cannabinoid products, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These investigations are ongoing. CDC will provide updates when more information is available."

More Recommendations and Resources from the CDC: 

  • If you are concerned about harmful effects from e-cigarette products, call your local poison control center: 1-800-222-1222.
  • The public should submit detailed reports of any unexpected tobacco or e-cigarette-related health or product issues to the FDA via the online Safety Reporting Portal.

Update: Soon after publishing this post, I received an email from Thomas Whidden, a lead cannabis consultant and Founder of WeedRAR. In his email, Whidden wrote: 

"I’m reaching out as someone who’s been working in the cannabis industry for over 10 years to offer my insight on what unregulated producers might be diluting their products with, causing lipoid pneumonia and other problems.

There are currently companies who profit off the sale of cutting agents which have been suspected to contain Vitamin E Acetate. These companies refuse to release ingredients and/or studies proving their safe use."

References

CDC Investigation Notice: "Outbreak of Lung Illness Associated with Using E-Cigarette Products" (Posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on September 6, 2019, at 9:50 p.m. ET)

Maria L. Roditis and Bonnie Halpern-Felsher. "Adolescents' Perceptions of Risks and Benefits of Conventional Cigarettes, E-cigarettes, and Marijuana: A Qualitative Analysis." Journal of Adolescent Health (First published: June 23, 2015) DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2015.04.002