Illness strikes e-cigarette users

Rachel Katz and Sarah Boeke

Recently, there have been multiple reports of respiratory issues caused by vaping among users.
Photo by Mariel Mudrik

When junior Sofia Thompson walked into the bathroom, she was not shocked to find a group of students huddled in the handicap stall. This was a typical experience for Thompson. It was obvious to her what the students were doing behind the closed stall: vaping. So, when the first cases of vaping-related illnesses were presented in the media, Thompson was far from surprised.

“Obviously you’re putting nicotine into your body and huffing on something that looks like a USB drive, [so] that’s not going to end well,” Thompson said.

A CDC-INFO representative generalist from the Centers for Disease Control said in a phone interview that as of Sept. 11, 2019, there have been 380 confirmed and probable cases of lung illnesses associated with e-cigarette products and vaping.

Some of the symptoms that have been reported are coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever or abdominal pain.

Dr. Thomas Eissenberg, co-director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an email interview, “One interesting commonality is that many of these cases appear to present [themselves] as a pneumonia-like lung disease and inhalation of oil is known to cause that type of disease, called ‘lipoid pneumonia.’”

Eissenberg said the first case of this vaping-related lipoid pneumonia appeared in 2012. It is likely that cases of vaping related illness have surfaced in previous years, but were not brought to the public’s attention because they were not reported or were misdiagnosed.

Pulmonologist Dr. Gregg Lipschik said in a phone interview that another potential factor is that people are adding tetrahydrocannabinol, otherwise known as THC, along with other unknown substances to the vaping liquid.

“No one knows what the health consequences of [THC, flavor additives and other unknown chemicals] are and people suspect that that’s what’s causing some of the problems that we’re seeing,” Lipschik said.

Dr. Brian Jenssen, pediatrician and executive member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Tobacco Control, said in a phone interview that the reason the chemicals in these additives are unknown to the public is because e-cigarettes, although they are tobacco products and contain nicotine, are not regulated.

The most common course of treatment has been steroids to treat the acute lung injury. Jenssen said the main goal is to prevent anyone from ever using cigarettes or e-cigarettes.

“It took a long time to realize and do the research to figure out that cigarettes, for example, cause lung cancer,” said Jenssen. “We’re talking about 30 years of time because it really took time to figure out what was really happening.

“We don’t need to take 30 years to figure out that there’s this harm here with e-cigarettes.”

According to Eissenberg, there is reason to believe the amount of vaping-related illnesses will increase. He said that until regulations are put on these tobacco products, this cluster of illnesses will only be the beginning of an epidemic.

Thompson said people who don’t already use tobacco products shouldn’t start at all.

“I think that [vaping] is natural selection,” said Thompson. “If you’re dumb enough to suck on something that looks like a USB drive, then I don’t know what to tell you when you find out you have a collapsed lung.”