The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this morning that it has isolated the likely culprit behind the rash of vaping-related illnesses and deaths. Vaping-related lung damage has been responsible for 39 deaths, and an additional 2,051 individuals have fallen ill, according to The New York Times.
This outbreak has been of special concern for those living with HIV or other chronic illnesses since many have switched to vaping nicotine products because it appears healthier than smoking cigarettes. Others use THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis) vape products to combat HIV-related symptoms, chronic pain, mental health issues, or medication side effects.
Though it didn’t rule out other chemicals or toxins as playing a part in triggering the epidemic, the CDC argued that vitamin E acetate is a “very strong culprit” after isolating the chemical in the lungs of 29 patients who were suffering from or had died from the mysterious lung disease.
Since mid-August, when the outbreak began, health investigators have believed that some cutting agents that are not found in the products bought from authorized dealers and reputable makers but are found in black market THC and nicotine products could be responsible.
Vitamin E acetate has been a strong candidate ever since New York state health officials first identified vitamin E acetate in several samples. Vitamin E oil, which is not harmful when ingested or applied topically, is sometimes added to black-market vape cartridges as either a thickening agent or to dilute the THC (to increase profits).
“For the first time, we have detected a potential toxin of concern, vitamin E acetate, from biological samples from patients [with lung damage linked to vaping],” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, at a news briefing. She added that the samples collected from the patients “provided evidence of vitamin E acetate at the primary site of injury in the lungs.”
The findings, which were initially published Friday morning in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, note that the samples were also tested for plant oils, petroleum distillates, and other potentially harmful substances. The CDC noted these as “not detected.”
The majority of the sufferers are male (about 70 percent) and under 35 (79 percent). Eighty-six percent admitted that they have had vaped THC products. But researchers acknowledge that some, especially younger people, might not be forthright about their THC usage, as nonmedicinal cannabis is still illegal in most U.S. states.