After an investigation lasting several months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes they have found the cause behind a rash of vaping-related hospitalizations and deaths. In early November, the agency reported that vitamin E acetate was found in every one of the samples they tested. Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, noted that “vitamin E acetate is a known additive used to dilute liquid in e-cigarettes or vaping products that contain THC.”
Vitamin E is found in many foods, including vegetable oil, cereal, meat and fruit. It’s also part of some cosmetic products, such as skin creams. It’s not harmful in these forms; however, research suggests it interferes with lung function when inhaled. Vitamin E acetate is commonly used as a thickening agent in the production of vaping products that include THC.
Vaping Illness Outbreak by the Numbers
As of November 5th, over 2000 cases of vaping-related lung injury had been reported across 49 states and the District of Columbia. These injuries led to 39 deaths in 24 different states. People affected typically reported coughing, chest pain or shortness of breath, while others reported nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever and weight loss. In many cases, the person’s health continued to deteriorate, forcing them to be hospitalized. Some victims developed acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening condition in which fluid builds up in the lungs and prevents oxygen from circulating in the bloodstream.
“This outbreak has shined a light on the fact that any product inhaled into the lungs carries some health risks, including e-cigarettes,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “All the experts agree that vaping isn’t good for your health. The only question up for debate is exactly how bad it is. Protecting your health is an important part of having a long career, and we encourage members and their families to gather all the facts before deciding to use any e-cigarette product.”
Health officials created a new term to describe these illnesses – e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI). This term points to the fact that the CDC is still investigating whether other chemicals or processes may also be contributing to these illnesses. Part of the reason health officials can’t be completely certain of the exact cause behind EVALI is the wide array of e-liquid and vaping products available on the market today, and the lack of regulation over their ingredients. Consumers can buy both nicotine, CBD and THC-based vaping products through legal means in certain states, while in other states THC-based products are only available illegally. In some EVALI cases, the products came from black market sellers modifying legal nicotine products to illegally add THC and other chemicals.
At this time, the CDC recommends that people avoid “e-cigarette or vaping products containing THC, especially those obtained from informal sources such as friends or family, or those from the illicit market, where products are unknown or can be highly variable.”
Potential for Both Short-Term and Long-Term Health Risks
While avoiding THC-based vaping products may greatly reduce your chances of being hospitalized with an acute lung injury, there are many other long-term health risks worth considering. The nicotine in e-cigarettes raises blood pressure, and inhaling vape smoke and other chemicals irritates the airway and lungs, decreasing lung function. New research shows that e-cigarettes may even raise cholesterol and decrease blood flowing through the heart more than traditional cigarettes.
The LHSFNA recommends that people who aren’t currently using tobacco products don’t start, and that people who are using them work towards quitting. The Fund’s Health Effects of Using Tobacco and Health Effects of Tobacco Exposure pamphlets provide more information. For smoking cessation resources, including Quit Tobacco Kits, contact the Fund’s Health Promotion Division.