The CDC says that it is now confident it has uncovered the cause of a recent rash of deaths that have resulted from “vaping,” or the smoking of e-cigarettes.
Interestingly enough, a health-surveillance system that was put in place after the 9-11 terrorist attacks of September, was used to pinpoint the cause of the vaping-related lung injuries that have killed more than 50 Americans and sent more than 2,500 people to the hospital.
Using this system, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that vaping related lung injuries rose sharply in June of this year.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, says this sharp spike strongly points to a single culprit for most of these cases — vitamin E acetate, an additive found mainly in illicit cannabis-containing vapes.
“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other chemicals that can or are causing lung injury,” Schuchat said during a telephone news conference. But backed with additional data about vitamin E acetate found in lung samples from people who were injured after vaping, she attributes the bulk of the outbreak to that additive.
The CDC is still trying to understand the mechanism by which this substance injures lung tissue. It may interfere with a natural fluid in the lung called surfactant, which helps make lung tissue stretchy. Or a byproduct may be a toxic chemical.
Emergency-room doctors in Wisconsin first noticed an outbreak of these lung injuries in June. They alerted state and federal health officials, who quickly started investigating the extent of the outbreak as they looked for what could be causing it.
Investigators zoned in on vaping products containing marijuana extracts, specifically those that were purchased online or on the street, rather than through dispensaries. Further research focused on vitamin E acetate, which is used in some of these preparations to dilute the much more expensive THC oil.
Leveraging the anti-terrorist software — which was designed to track patterns of ER visits nationwide to detect patterns of injuries that could be related to terrorist attacks – investigators found a gradual increase in emergency-room visits among people who vaped or used e-cigarettes, starting in January of 2017.
The number of cases climbed from June into September, when they peaked. They have since declined, but the CDC still reports about 100 cases a week, and the death toll continues to tick upward.
In response to the CDCs findings, last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced a crackdown on illicit vaping cartridges. The FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration seized 44 websites advertising the sale of these products, as part of “Operation Vapor Lock,” its response to the lung injuries.