Investigators appear to be getting closer to uncovering one of the main causes of the outbreak of mysterious lung injuries linked with e-cigarettes: vaping products containing THC, the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis.
On Friday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said that while they haven’t figured out exactly which chemical or device is making people sick, the majority of the cases in both national and state studies to date appear to involve THC-based vaping products. Many of them are illicit products labeled with brand names such as “Dank Vape.”
Out of the 514 national cases CDC analyzed, 77 percent reported using THC-containing products or both THC and nicotine, while 16 percent reported using only nicotine-containing products. The CDC shared more details about the groups hardest hit: more than two-thirds are male, with a median age of 23. Sixty-two percent are ages 18 to 34, and more than half are under the age of 25. Ninety-one percent were hospitalized. Among the states with the most cases to date: California, Texas, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
A separate study, also published Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, focused on patients in Illinois and Wisconsin, and it came to a similar conclusion. Of the 86 patients interviewed, 87 percent said they’d used products with THC. The overwhelming majority (96 percent) of the THC products these patients reported using involved pre-packaged, pre-filled cartridges or pods, which they said they did not tinker with. These products were bought primarily from “informal sources such as friends, family members, illicit dealers, or off the street.” And while there was no brand linked to all the cases, 66 percent of patients reported use of products under the brand name Dank Vapes.
“Dank Vapes appears to be the most prominent in a class of largely counterfeit brands, with common packaging that is easily available online and that is used by distributors to market THC-containing cartridges with no obvious centralized production or distribution,” the report read.
Other brands patients most commonly reported using included Moon Rocks, Off White and TKO.
One caveat: The CDC’s investigation is ongoing. It’s also possible that, in the coming weeks, the agency will uncover another chemical, product, or brand linked to the cases. The studies published Friday also involved self-reported data, and it’s possible people don’t remember what they used or are reluctant to share the details of their vaping or THC habits. The brand details came from just two states, and the picture may look different in other parts of the country.
But for now, “The outbreak is pointing to a greater concern around THC-containing products,” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at CDC, on Friday. At this time, she added, officials still aren’t narrowing their investigation at all. So the agency continues to advise everybody — except smokers who are vaping to quit combustible cigarettes — to avoid using e-cigarettes. It’s also adding an extra caveat: Be especially wary of THC-containing e-cigarette products.
In all, 805 cases of vaping-related illness have been reported by 46 states and the US Virgin Islands since April, according to a CDC update on September 26. These cases are either confirmed (tests have shown there’s no infection causing the illness and vaping appears to be the only culprit) or probable (testing is still underway, or the patient has an infection but doctors don’t think it’s what causing their breathing troubles). The only other country to report a vaping-related illness case to date has been Canada.
Patients who have come down with the mystery lung injury started to experience symptoms anywhere from a few days to several weeks after using e-cigarettes. So far, the patients have a few things in common, according to the CDC. They suffered from respiratory symptoms, including coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, abdominal pain, fever, and weight loss were also common symptoms.
On X-rays, patients’ lungs appear to be inflamed, as if a pathogen infected them. But when doctors have tried to find a common bacterial or viral source of the disease, they’ve failed to turn anything up. Again, patients only have vaping in common, but no specific products or substances link all the cases together.That’s why an investigation is still underway, and officials are urging doctors and the public to report cases. People who are concerned they’ve been harmed by an e-cigarette product should also contact their health care provider or local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
The outbreak isn’t the first to raise questions about the safety of vaping. From nicotine-induced seizures to injuries from vaping explosions to stress on the lungs and cardiovascular system, doctors and health researchers have been calling attention to vaping’s harms. But it is the first time vaping has been linked directly to deaths.