A 20-year-old man who used to vape every day almost died from a life-threatening lung injury, and ‘vape juice’ might be the culprit

Aaron Flores exhales water vapors from an electronic cigarette. At least one person has died from a lung injury after vaping. Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
  • At least 215 cases of severe and mysterious lung illnesses associated with vaping have been identified this summer in the US alone.
  • Alexander Mitchell, a 20-year-old man from Utah, almost died right after he bought a new bottle of vape juice. 18-year old Maddie Nelson was also forced into a medically-induced coma, and at least 26 other cases like theirs have occurred in that state alone.
  • Both Mitchell and Nelson say they will never vape again. But studies suggest that young people like them make up a significant portion of the vaping market, in part because they like the flavour oils that may be causing these lung issues.
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Daniel Mitchell says he “wept” at the thought he was going to have to bury his child.

“I felt that we were going to be planning a funeral,” Mitchell told KUTV, after his son, 20 year-old Alexander Mitchell contracted a dangerous lung illness that puzzled his doctors.

The young man had a case of lipoid pneumonia (a condition caused by fat or oil in the lungs), which quickly escalated into acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening condition that put him on life support. Health experts suspect that Mitchell’s daily vaping habit may have been at fault.

The younger Mitchell told KUTV he bought “a new bottle of juice,” the liquid that gives vapes their flavours, which can also deliver nicotine or other drugs, “and literally the next day is when everything started going downhill.”

Read More: Officials are investigating a spate of lung illnesses tied to vaping. Here are the other health risks you should know about.

At least 215 similar lung issues have been reported across 25 US states this summer, according to the CDC, all associated with e-cigarette use. One Illinois man died after vaping in August, and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) says at least 21 others, ranging from age 17 to 38, are having breathing issues in that state.

In Utah, where Mitchell lives, at least 28 cases of severe lung issues related to vaping have been identified so far, with 14 more under investigation, the Utah Department of Public Health said on Tuesday. Some of the patients said they were vaping cannabis oil (THC) when they started feeling sick, but no specific brands have been implicated in the illnesses.

Symptoms include coughing, difficulty breathing, fatigue, fever, vomiting, and diarrhoea, which can develop over the course of days or weeks.

“The severity of illness people are experiencing is alarming and we must get the word out that using e-cigarettes and vaping can be dangerous,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement.

Vape oils may be to blame for the lung damage

The flavours of vaping liquids are one of the two primary reasons young people told Reuters they began using e-cigs. REUTERS/David Becker

Health experts don’t fully understand why this is happening, but the CDC says that some of the ingredients in aerosols created by vaping may do long-term damage to the lungs. The CDC and FDA said in a statement Friday that they are “working to standardize information collection at the state level to help build a more comprehensive picture of these incidents,” by keeping track of which specific brands and products ill vapers are using.

The FDA has also received some 80 vape samples so far for testing. Already, health experts are finding some of the first clues that fat deposits from vaping oil could be part of the problem.

A 2018 BMJ case report looked at a 34-year-old British woman who’d been vaping for three years when she developed lipoid pneumonia and respiratory failure, similar to Mitchell’s. The case suggested that vegetable glycerine in e-cigarettes may be to blame.

“Some e-cigarette flavourings may be safe to eat but not to inhale because the gut can process more substances than the lungs,” the CDC says on its website.

Doctors are worried about the additives in e-cigarettes, too. Scott Aberegg, a University of Utah pulmonologist told the Washington Post he thinks the uptick in lung issue reports this summer across the US might be caused by ingredients in vape oils “to dilute or add to them.”

An overwhelming majority of young people who vape (81%) say tasty vape juice flavours are a primary reason they use e-cigarettes. It’s a big enough phenomenon that that last year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) barred gas stations and convenience stores from selling fruit and candy-flavored vape juices.

“Inhaling oil into your lungs is extremely dangerous behaviour that could result in death,” Thomas Eissenberg, who co-directs the Centre for the Study of Tobacco Products at Virginia Commonwealth University told The New York Times.

There is no way to know exactly what’s in vape juice

Much like Mitchell, 18-year-old Maddie Nelson of Utah said she vaped every day for three years until she was forced into a medically-induced coma in July. Her symptoms included severe fever, nausea, body aches, appetite loss, and chest pain so bad that now says she’ll “never touch a vape again.”

“My temperature was so high, my brain just completely shut off,” Nelson recently told Fox 13, saying her doctors suspect that her vape juice is at fault, having created a perfect environment for dangerous bacteria to thrive in her lungs.

“I had fat particles growing inside my lungs that were related to the glycerin in vape juice,” she said.

The CDC cautions that antibiotics alone have not made everyone’s vaping illnesses better, suggesting the root of these lung illnesses may be more complex than any single ingredient or additive.

According to the US Department of Health and Human services, vapes may contain chemicals like acrolein, “which can cause irreversible lung damage.” But because the devices aren’t FDA regulated, all the chemicals found in vape juice may not necessarily be listed on the packaging.

Health departments are encouraging doctors who see patients with unexplained respiratory illnesses to ask about their vaping and e-cigarette use.

Mitchell says he’s done using vape juice. The Post reports the young outdoorsman is back to doing what he loves, though he’s not quite the same hiker he used to be.

“I’m at 25% diminished lung capacity now,” Mitchell told KUTV. “Vaping’s promoted as a safer alternative when, in reality, it’s not.”

Update: This story was originally published on August 28, 2019. It has been updated with the latest vaping illness counts and case details.