- As of September 24, 805 possible vape-related respiratory illness cases have been reported from 46 states, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said in a statement. Twelve have resulted in death.
- Officials in Illinois reported the first death from a vaping-related lung injury in late August. Others have been hospitalized for lung injuries related to vaping. Their symptoms included diarrhoea, vomiting, coughing, and shortness of breath.
- Anecdotal evidence suggests e-cigarettes, which are synonymous with nicotine-containing vapes, aren’t free of health risks, but the lack of FDA regulation leaves unanswered questions about the exact ingredients causing these life-threatening reactions.
- Existing studies on vapes have shown that the devices contain chemicals (some of which may not be listed on packaging) that can cause throat irritation and an increased risk of heart attack.
- It’s impossible to know which chemicals lead to the damages since the devices aren’t FDA-regulated, but there are common compounds in vape devices that could “theoretically cause problems,” one pulmonologist told Insider.
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As of September 24, 805 possible vape-related respiratory illness cases have been reported from 46 states, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said in a statement. Twelve have resulted in death.
Throughout the spring and summer summer, people have reported vaping-related lung injuries including symptoms like shortness of breath, diarrhoea, vomiting, and coughing. Officials say a variety of products, including those containing marijuana or nicotine, were involved in the hundreds of cases.
The Food and Drug Administration first said it was launching an investigation into e-cigarettes (which are synonymous with nicotine-containing vapes) in April, after the agency received 35 reports of people having seizures following their use between 2010 and early 2019, Insider previously reported.
Anecdotal evidence suggests vapes aren’t free of health risks, but the lack of FDA regulation leaves unanswered questions for the public and doctors alike about the exact ingredients causing these life-threatening reactions, according to pulmonologist Dr. Ravi Kalhan, a professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“There’s some disturbing stuff in these things, an endless number of chemicals,” Kalhan told Insider.
A lack of regulation makes it difficult to pinpoint the cause of vaping-related illnesses, but researchers are hoping to find out
According to Kalhan, the little research on and regulation of vapes makes it impossible to know which chemicals or substances are causing lung injuries.
For this reason and others, a section of the National Institutes of Health recently awarded a team of researchers a grant to study the lung health of 4,000 millennials across the United States. The team, led by Kalhan, will follow participants for at least six years to see how factors like air pollution, marijuana, e-cigarettes, and physical activity affect their lung health.
The goal, Kalhan said, is to identify warning signs of lung disease before it becomes a problem, much like how primary care doctors check cholesterol levels in an attempt to thwart heart disease.
Irritating chemicals in vapes may be to blame
Until this point, known e-cigarette deaths have been due to explosions related to the devices themselves. In February, a Fort Worth, Texas, man died after his e-cigarette exploded in his face and fragments from the device pierced his cartoid artery, Insider previously reported. Between 2009 and 2019, the United States Fire Administration reported 195 different e-cigarette explosion or fire incidents.
But the Illinois case is the first death linked to the e-cig juice users inhale and subsequent lung damage. According to Kalhan, it’s pretty much impossible to tell which chemicals lead to the damages since the devices aren’t FDA-regulated, but there are common compounds in vape devices that could “theoretically cause problems.”
The first of those is propylene glycol, which according to Kalhan is “in most vape products as a suspension ingredient,” or a substance that allows liquid molecules to transfer to aerosols when heated. In vapes, propylene glycol is often used as a suspension ingredient for nicotine so it can be inhaled in its aerosol form.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease, the FDA says propylene glycol is“generally recognised as safe” when used in food, and the chemical is also used to create fog in fog machines and antifreeze. Research has shown propylene glycol can enter a person’s bloodstream if they inhale it, but it breaks down after 48 hours. If a person is consistently exposed to the chemical, however, it could lead to skin or lung irritation, depending on where the chemical interacts with the body.
Kalhan said some e-cigarettes also produce formaldehyde, a chemical that can cause lung disease. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies formaldehyde as a “probable human carcinogen,” which means inhaling the substance could increase a person’s cancer risk.
The colourless gas is also used to keeps clothes wrinkle-free in their packaging, although in undetectable amounts that can be scrubbed off with soap and water, Insider previously reported. Inhaling formaldehyde has also been linked to asthma and nausea, and wearing clothes with the chemical is associated with ashes, blisters, and itchy, dry skin.
Most e-cigs also produce acrolein, a chemical often found in weed killer. In 2018, researchers who presented at a meeting for The American Chemical Society found that people who inhaled acrolein sustained changes to their DNA. “If the cell does not repair the damage so that normal DNA replication can take place, cancer could result,” a press release on the research said. The chemical, which is often used as a pesticide for algae and weeds and releases when gasoline is burned, has been linked to lung and gastrointestinal problems, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Doctors have been unable to pinpoint whether a specific chemical or mixture of chemicals like the above have led to the rising number of lung injuries, but Kalhan believes the uptick in cases could raise awareness.
Vaping “isn’t always something we doctors ask about, which is why I wonder if it’s being recognised more now,” Kalhan said. “Doctors are asking more and more patients about vaping if they have respiratory illness.”
- The FDA demanded 44 vape pod types be removed from store shelves after finding they were illegally sold. Vaping has been recently linked to lung infections and seizures.
- Some Juul pods may contain throat-irritating chemicals that aren’t listed on the packaging
- E-cigarette advocates are furious about San Francisco’s new ban, and a public health official said it’s an ‘ideological vendetta’ that will ultimately hurt smokers
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