A man vaping with an e-cigarette. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In recent months over a thousand people in 49 states have been diagnosed with vaping-related respiratory illnesses. Over 26 of these cases have resulted in death. There has been no identified cause for these illnesses, although as many as 76% of victims report using vape cartridges filled with THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Currently investigators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are working to determine more details about this outbreak.

During the same time period, the California Department of Public Health has identified several cases of vaping related illnesses and deaths. Many of these cases have involved individuals who had vaped THC as well.

Individuals have shown up in medical facilities and emergency rooms with symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, diarrhea and labored breathing. Some physicians have identified the illness as Severe Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, or wet lung.

What You Need to Know

There have been few, if any, long-term studies of the health effects of vaping. Regardless of what the final determination is on the cause of these recent cases, vaping has been known to cause adverse health effects for some time. Because of the lack of standardized testing of these products, many consumers and parents are left unaware of potential risks.

Vaping is now popular among youth for consumption of flavored nicotine, THC and CBD. In fact, much of the vape marketing is specifically targeted to teens. Recent reports show that as much as 15% of the total vaping market is people under the age of 18.

A recent National Institute on Drug Abuse survey confirmed a big spike in the number of high school students who are vaping: 37% of seniors had tried vaping in 2018, compared to 27% in 2017.

Lack of Product Testing

  • There are no uniform testing standards or product safety standards for vaping devices to protect consumers.
  • There is no labeling requirement for vaping to disclose what ingredients are used in the vaping product.
  • The FDA does not test marijuana products for human consumption at this time because medical benefits have not been proven. This means that there are no uniform national testing standards that consumers can rely upon to protect them.
  • Even in states that have legalized marijuana, testing does not assure consumer safety. Of marijuana products tested by the California Bureau of Marijuana Control, 1 out of 5 products tested failed to meet the minimum standards due to high levels of pesticides, solvents or bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella.

Deceptive Packaging

  • Vaping devices are intentionally packaged to not look like a vaping device which makes it easy to hide from parents, often disguised to look like thumb drives, key chains and other hard-to-identify items.
  • Vaping cartridges bought on the black market may not be safe and often contain additives, unsafe amounts of chemicals, or may be completely mislabeled and not contain any of the ingredients promised.
  • Many overseas vaping products may have similar packaging to popular U.S brands, yet they do not maintain any standards for product safety and quality assurance.

Exposure to Dangerous Chemicals

  • Vaping creates a gas mist that enters the lungs. Most of the vaping gas is propylene glycol, the same mist from fog machines. Other additives include vegetable glycerin, oils, and other unknown chemicals. Once heated these chemicals may pose a health risk if inhaled.
  • Vaping devices burn so hot that users are ingesting metals and hazardous chemicals such as formaldehyde. Several explosions have occurred that have been determined to have been caused by lithium batteries used to power vaping devices. These have caused injury and even death.

Though it’s sometimes cited as an alternative to smoking cigarettes, vaping is not the way to quit. Only FDA-approved smoking-cessation products should be used.

Vaping is not safe. Those who choose to vape are putting themselves at risk any time they inhale a foreign substance into their lungs. Vape liquids contain several dangerous chemicals, some of which cause developmental harm or are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm. Vaping nicotine and marijuana are particularly dangerous for youth, whose developing brains are more vulnerable to these neurotoxins.

Nathan A. Painter is a clinical professor of pharmacy at UC San Diego’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science. For additional resources online, visit the CDC and Center for Community Research websites.

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