My Turn: Vaping nothing new — but recent problems are

Vaping. What we know about modern vaping is that nearly 1,900 lung injuries have been caused and 37 deaths have been attributed to it. Researchers are trying to figure out what is causing this tragedy and why.

Despite its seemingly sudden popularity, vaping is nothing new. Inhaling therapeutic herbs via vaporization has been documented since the 16th century in India and Iran. In 1927 Joseph Robinson filed a patent for an electronic cigarette in order to “electrically vaporize medicinal compounds for inhalation.” It was Herbert A. Gilbert who in 1963, used a battery to heat the substances to be inhaled. We attribute the word “vape” to him. There were several others after these inventors, most offering an alternative to smoking nicotine, though it was often also intended to offer an easier way to take medicine and herbal remedies.

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Vaping has been commercially available to the public for over 10 years with no adverse events reported until now. The current trouble began this spring when a few otherwise healthy people started showing symptoms of a pneumonia-type illness. Hospitals in Illinois, Wisconsin and Utah began to see patients admitted with a lung injury that was not an infection, therefore it did not respond to antibiotics. This group had a median age of 23 years old and they were predominantly male. Some were re-admitted to the hospital after being released and 1/3 needed to be on a respirator.

Then matters got worse.

People began to die from these lung injuries. The age span widened from 17 to 75. Vaping injuries spread to every state except Alaska. Hawaii has had no reported deaths from vaping lung injury and has had fewer than 10 cases of illness reported.

As with any trend that is out of the ordinary, the research begins with observations and inquiry. The one common thread was that all of these people were e-cigarette users. What is causing the injury? Of the people who became ill and provided information to investigators, 85% indicated they were smoking THC and 50% of them used products with vitamin E acetate. Vitamin E acetate is not toxic itself. It is used safely in oral form as a supplement and in skin products. When vitamin E is used to cut a vaping fluid and it gets into the lungs is where investigators suspect it may cause problems.

Further, about 10% of those questioned said they only vaped nicotine, even though urine tests showed THC. The subjects may not have been comfortable divulging that they had vaped THC for a number of reasons. What about the people who did not smoke THC and it was confirmed by urine test that there was no THC in their system? Investigators are trying to put together the pieces.

Many of the people injured got pre-filled cartridges from informal sources on the street, from friends or from the internet. Were there possibly other toxic substances used to cut product and increase profit? The FDA is testing over 900 samples of products and devices. They are also trying to find illicit supply chains by working with the US Customs and Border Patrol that governs international shipping.

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In the meantime, the CDC recommends stopping all e-cigs and vaping until more information is gleaned. For those who have taken up vaping as a substitute for smoking cigarettes, consult with your healthcare provider to determine best next steps while this investigation is underway. One thing is certain, know the sources of the products you purchase, be it food, medicine, electronics, or household items. Your life may depend on it.

Shanon Sidell is a licensed naturopathic physician who lives and works in Waikoloa.