Modified “Street” E-Cigarette Products May Be Behind Mysterious Lung Disease Linked To Vaping

Modified unregulated products may contain harmful contaminants. LezinAV/Shutterstock

US health officials have launched a nationwide collaborative investigation into potentially tainted and harmful e-cigarette products in the wake of at least one death and hundreds of mysterious lung infections in dozens of states possibly associated with vaping.

A joint statement released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that as of August 27, at least 215 cases of mysterious lung disease from 25 states have been linked to the use of e-cigarettes. At least one person has died from severe respiratory illness following the use of an e-cigarette product.

“We were deeply saddened last week to learn of the death of an adult in Illinois who had been hospitalized with a severe respiratory illness following the use of an e-cigarette product,” wrote the agencies. “We are working closely with state and local health officials to investigate these incidents as quickly as possible, and we are committed to taking appropriate actions as a clearer picture of the facts emerges.”

No one product has been linked to the illnesses, which is described as a “gradual start of symptoms, including breathing difficulty, shortness of breath, and/or chest pain.” More information is needed do understand links between the illnesses and products. At this time, authorities say there does not appear to be one product involved although tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinoids have been linked to several cases.

“While some cases in each of the states are similar and appear to be linked to e-cigarette product use, more information is needed to determine what is causing the respiratory illnesses,” said officials, adding that modified e-cigarette products obtained from "street" sources may contain contaminants that may harm the user. In recent months, e-cigarette cartridges been altered in order to vape nicotine, cannabis, vitamins, and even Viagra.

The agencies are sharing their information with the public and health workers to mitigate associated risk and provide clinicians with standardized case definitions and protocols so that states may conduct their own investigations, which includes taking stock of the brand and types of products used, where they were obtained, and whether any of them would fall under FDA regulation. So far, the FDA has received 80 samples that will undergo analysis to determine ingredients and possible contaminants.  

Scientists are still studying the effects of e-cigarette use to understand risks and possible benefits. Previous research indicates that flavorings and other additives in e-cigarette liquids may increase inflammation and impair lung function, alter DNA, and repress the immune system.

Experts have issued a health alert advising users to refrain from vape products. For those that do use e-cigarettes, do not buy products off the street or modify existing ones by adding substances. If you experience any unusual symptoms seek prompt medical attention.

Officials are also requesting that the public report any incidents via a secure online portal.

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