MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - For months, health experts have been scrambling to find the cause of a mysterious vaping-related illness outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the outbreak has sickened more than 2,000 people and killed 39. Health officials now say they may have found a possible culprit after conducting a breakthrough study.
Recently, investigators tested samples of fluid taken from the lungs of 29 patients with vaping illness in ten different states and found vitamin E acetate in all 29. Vitamin E acetate is a synthetic form of vitamin E, which is an oil-based substance found in many foods we eat and in products like skin cream. But when inhaled, previous research suggests it may interfere with normal lung functioning.
So why are people putting it in vape cartridges? Dr. Thaddeus Golden, a pulmonologist at Grand Strand Health, believes it’s about looks. He says the substance is sometimes used as a thickener in vaping fluid to mix with nicotine or THC, a chemical found in marijuana that produces a “high,” particularly in black market vape cartridges. It’s also used as an additive in vape products because it resembles THC oil.
“There’s certain things they’re [the lungs] not made to absorb and things like oils. Anything that has a lipid content to it isn’t well absorbed, so we know for years and decades there are certain occupational exposures where oils are aerosolized and that can cause lung disease,” said Golden. “So the concerning thing is that even if they take the vitamin E acetate out of it, some of these have lipids or are lipid- based, so they may cause longer-term injury that we aren’t aware of yet or may not be aware of for years or decades.”
At Grand Strand Health, Golden has already treated patients with vaping-related illnesses this year. He says when examining a patient, X-ray results could mimic a typical pneumonia.
Golden, along with government agencies and health officials, are warning the public to avoid any vape products for the time being regardless.
“First of all, I don’t know that any vaping is safe. I certainly think if you don’t know where your products come from, then that’s a significant concern and it may not be evident from the label or from the store. It may be these aren’t mail order or black market, this stuff may be purchased in stores, so I still recommend abstaining if at all possible and using reputable companies if not,” said Golden.
While this is the first time the agency has detected a toxin of concern, officials say they cannot rule out other possible toxins or ingredients that may be causing the illnesses. Health officials say they will continue to test for a wide range of chemicals.
As of Nov. 5, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is reporting 34 cases of confirmed or probable cases of vaping-related lung injuries.