More than a thousand people have suffered vaping-related lung injury and reports of vaping-related lung illness are now rising by hundreds each week. As of October 1, public health officials confirmed eighteen deaths in fifteen states.
As public concern over the health effects of vaping has intensified, researchers have scrambled to figure out what’s going on. An examination by Mayo Clinic of lung tissue from 17 patients released October 2 found evidence of what looked like chemical burns.
Another study of a similar number of cases released September 6 found multiple pathologies in those patients.
So, what lessons can we draw from this complicated picture?
“This looks like a toxin-induced lung injury pattern…from inhalation of chemical substances that cause direct injury to the lung,” said David Christiani, professor of medicine and environmental genetics and director of Harvard Education and Research Center for Occupational Safety and Health.
Christiani wrote about our growing understanding of vaping’s health effects in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“[It’s] somewhat similar to what we might see in certain industrial settings,” he said.
Christiani acknowledged that having just 17 lung biopsy samples out of more than a thousand cases of harm limits scientists' conclusions. But among the patients who have suffered severe, acute lung injury, 80 to 85 percent had been using cannabinoids -- either THC or CBD, he said.
“That gives you a hint that home brewing has a lot to do with this.”
Meantime, a September 4 study out of Baylor College of Medicine used mice to test vaping liquid with no additional nicotine, cannabinoids, or flavors. It found that the vaping liquid alone caused damage to immune cells. This finding could point to yet another form of lung damage.
“This is not going to be a single pathologic picture,” said Christiani. “It's complex exposure with a lung injury pattern… the injury manifestations are going to be varied.”
The CDC has announced that while the investigation into vaping continues, it recommends that people not vape, particularly products containing THC. Christiani agreed with this approach.
“Let's just put a moratorium on this for a while until we figure it out,” Christiani said. “I would just think we shouldn't vape until we clear this up.”
After the causes of the acute cases and deaths are known, Christiani said it will be important to understand chronic health problems caused by vaping, too.
“We have concerns about the flavors, and we have concerns about the industrial solvents and extractants, many of which most of which are not listed in the ingredients,” he said.
After this segment aired, a new study was published that found a link between vaping and lung cancer in laboratory mice.