Vol. 218 September 15, 2019 Vaping and Fatal Pneumonia

September 15, 2019

“The rise in vaping-associated illness is a frightening public health phenomenon.”

– Andrew Cuomo, NewYork Governor

 

Severe pneumonia in over 400 people, including 10 deaths, in 36 states have been associated with vaping certain products. The CDC is investigating the phenomenon as a mysterious, previously unrecognized epidemic. Patients from 18 to 88 years of age have been arriving at Emergency Rooms with severe shortness of breath, cough, little or no fever, and a chest Xray with markedly abnormal diffuse infiltrates. Blood cultures show no bacteria, and the response to the usual antibiotics is sluggish or absent. Some patients require intubation and artificial ventilation in order to maintain oxygenation of their blood. A few die. All have a history of vaping, most often using flavored vaping solutions purchased “on the street” or over the internet, i.e. not from licensed vape shops.

The speculation at this point is that flavored vaping solutions have additives that are causing this illness.  The current focus is on Vitamin E oil, added to flavored vaping solutions as a thickening agent. Vitamin E is well recognized as a beneficial skin emollient and an oral nutrient supplement, so it sounds harmless and enjoys a “good-health” reputation. It is inexpensive and readily available, so is a “logical” additive for cheaper, unlicensed vaping solutions sold on the black market (“street-made”) and the internet. The street vendors use the cheaper additives to cut the expensive THC oil and make more profit per vaping cartridge.

In an e-cigarette the Vitamin E oil is heated up and vaporized by a battery-fed hot wire, and the vapor is inhaled. As the temperature of the Vitamin E oil vapor lowers to the normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit the Vitamin E vapor in the lungs reverts to its liquid form, oil. Any form of oil is extremely toxic to lung tissue. Just ask any physician who has dealt with a patient with oil-aspiration pneumonia, sometimes called “lipoid pneumonia“. The first case report of lipoid pneumonia after vaping was actually reported in 2015 in the journal Chest  as a unique, interesting, never-before seen case of a 31 yo. West Virginian woman who required intubation in the ICU after presenting to the ER in severe respiratory distress after vaping.

There are so many additives in vaping solutions that it is not absolutely certain that Vitamin E oil is the culprit, but some of the counterfeit vaping solutions used by recent respiratory-distress patients contained more than 50% Vitamin E oil!  A 2015 Harvard study that tested 51 of 7,000 vaping solutions found Vitamin E oil in all the flavored ones, and it commented on the potential dangers of inhaling flavored vaping solutions. None of the vaping solutions containing “only” nicotine  or marijuana (THC) contained Vitamin E oil. By the way, the FDA and the various state cannabis commissions have NO idea of the ingredients and additives in vaping solutions. There are currently NO regulations requiring the listing of vaping solution ingredients, even those sold in licensed vape shops. “The cannabis commission does not regulate the ingredients in licensed marijuana stores’ vape cartridges. . . Licensed producers can source their ingredients from anywhere.”

As an aside, this reminds me of a story told by my cousin, a biochemical Ph.D candidate in the 1960’s researching how chlorophyll (the green substance) carried on photosynthesis. In his chromatographic analysis of all sorts of substances, including tobacco, he determined that Marlboro cigarettes had no tobacco in them. They appeared to be made of cabbage leaves infused with nicotine. Incensed (he was a smoker), he wrote an emphatic letter to the company documenting his findings and scolding them for false advertising.. The company’s response was a polite letter pointing out that at no time did they claim in their ads that their cigarettes had any tobacco in them, that they merely promised a smooth taste  . . .and “good luck on your quest to synthesize an artificial chlorophyll.”

The CDC is foraging ahead aggressively with detailed investigations, state legislatures are composing all sorts of ingredient disclosure laws for vaping manufacturers, and, I am sure, many personal injury lawyers are trolling for potentially lucrative suits. In the meantime, I think it would be the better part of valor if everyone stopped vaping until the dust . . . er . . . the vapor settles. Who would guess that we would ever say, “It appears to be much safer to just smoke a joint!”

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