Cause Of Vaping Illnesses May Not Be What Experts Thought

Jeremy Wong blows vapor from an e-cigarette at The Vaping Buddha on January 23, 2018 in South San Francisco, California.
Photo credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

(KCBS Radio) - The outbreak of vaping-related illnesses in the U.S. has surpassed 1,000 cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that 1,080 confirmed and probable cases have been reported across 48 states and one U.S. territory, including 18 deaths.

While public health experts continue to try and figure out what's behind the outbreak of cases, a new study by the Mayo Clinic says the cause is likely not what officials have suspected for weeks.

Since the rise of vape-related lung illnesses began, many public health officials and researchers have hypothesized that the culprit could be thickening oils such as vitamin E acetate in the vapor that people were inhaling, which ultimately clogged their lungs.

But the study found that victims' injuries suggest a caustic chemical agent, similar to a burn.

“It’s akin to something you would see in say, a worker who was involved in some kind of industrial accident,” says Dr. Yasmeen Butt, a pulmonary pathologist at the Mayo Clinic and one of the study’s authors.

Dr. Butt says the illnesses people have suffered are the equivalent of chemical burns, although it is not clear what chemical may be causing it. “I think due to the intrinsic variability of what people are vaping and the concentrations they’re vaping, it’s really hard to pin down which ones are the problem.”

Many of the people in the study who fell ill had been vaping for long periods of time with a variety of different products and habits.

“We saw a range of different types of injury patterns in our cases, which I think corresponds well to the range of chemicals and different materials that people are putting into their vape cartridges,” says Dr. Butt. “It may just be that some people are more intrinsically susceptible to developing lung injury from vaping just like many people that smoke are susceptible to developing lung cancer.”

Officials say most of the people who got sick had used vaping products containing THC, the ingredient that gives marijuana its high.