U.S. health officials announced a breakthrough Friday into the cause of a mysterious outbreak of vaping illnesses, reporting they have a “very strong culprit.”
The same chemical compound was found in fluid taken from the lungs of 29 patients across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced. The compound _ vitamin E acetate _ was previously found in liquid from electronic cigarettes and other vaping devices used by many of those who got sick.
This is the first time they’ve found a common suspect in the damaged lungs of patients, officials said.
“The latest announcement from CDC helps us narrow down this investigation by the work that they did at their laboratory to determine that there was vitamin E acetate in the lung fluids,” Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories said.
“It’s the first time that we’ve actually been able to pinpoint something in people. I think that-s a very important step in this investigation. There’s clearly more work to be done and we’ll continue to be doing that work,” Becker added.
The CDC cautioned they cannot rule out all other toxic substances, and it may take animal studies to clearly show vitamin E acetate causes the lung damage that’s been seen.
More than 2,000 Americans who vape have gotten sick since March, many of them teen and young adults, and at least 40 people have died. The bulk of the cases occurred in August and September but more than 100 new cases are still being reported each week.
Vitamin E acetate has only recently been used as a thickener in vaping fluid, particularly in black market vape cartridges. While vitamin E is safe as a vitamin pill or to use on the skin, inhaling oily droplets of it can be harmful.
“This investigation has been very challenging because there are so many different constituents and things that are in this product. It’s been like looking for a needle in the haystack,” Becker said, “I think with the latest announcements from CDC we’re getting much closer so I think we can rejoice that this work has taken place but there’s continuing work that needs to be done.”
Many who got sick said they had vaped liquids that contain THC, the high-inducing ingredient in marijuana, with many saying they got them from friends or bought them on the black market.
E-cigarettes and other vaping devices heat a liquid into an inhalable vapor. For years, most products contained nicotine, but THC vaping has been growing more common.
About two months ago, New York drew attention to vitamin E acetate when the state’s public health lab discovered it in samples of vaping products from sick patients. In some instances, it made up more than half of the liquid in the cartridges.
The chemical has shown up in tests in other labs, too, including a U.S. Food and Drug Administration lab in Cincinnati. FDA testing has found vitamin E acetate in half of the more than 400 THC vaping products tested from across the country.
“So laboratory testing I think was at the heart of this investigation all along. First it was testing of the product to see what was in it and what might potentially might be a cause, and now of course laboratory testing done at CDC to see what’s actually in people, that’s really what matters,” Becker said.
For the latest test, the CDC used fluid extracted from the lungs of 29 patients in 10 states, including two who died. Investigators looked for a range of substances that had been found in various vaping devices, including nicotine, THC and other marijuana components, plant oils, mineral oil and cutting agents used on the black market.
CDC is continuing to do other testing, including one kind involving machines that puff on e-cigarettes and then collect and analyze the vapor that comes out. However, the analysis of the lung fluid was such a strong and surprising finding that officials want to go forward with animal testing.
The CDC has received reports of vaping illnesses from every state except Alaska. Patients have had cough, chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue and vomiting. Imaging tests show lung injuries and doctors can’t find infections or other causes.
Vitamin E acetate is sticky substance _ experts likened it to honey _ that stays in the lungs. It makes sense that it would be used as a thickener for THC products, but probably not as an additive to nicotine liquids.
“It would make it too viscous. You wouldn’t be able to vape the nicotine well,” he said.
CDC has urged people to stop vaping, particularly products that contain THC.