Heath Officials Finally Have a Clue in the Vaping Lung Illness Mystery

Vitamin E acetate is a thickening ingredient found mostly in black market THC products.

nd3000/Getty

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new lab results on Friday that identify a chemical that may be the cause of recent vaping-related lung illnesses: vitamin E acetate, a thickening ingredient.

Health officials tested lung fluid from 29 people who fell ill after vaping—and detected vitamin E acetate in all samples. The findings are a major step forward in the investigation into the mysterious lung illness that has so far killed 39 people and sickened more than 2,000 people in the US.

“This is the first time,” the CDC’s press release reads, “that we have detected a potential chemical of concern in biologic samples from patients with these lung injuries.” 

Vitamin E, which is found in dietary supplements, cosmetics, and foods like meat, fruit, and vegetables, is typically safe to ingest or apply to the skin, the CDC says. But it may not be safe to inhale. Vitamin E acetate is also a new additive, found mostly in illicit cannabis products, according to marijuana news site Leafly.

Still, it’s still not totally clear whether products containing THC (the psychoactive molecule found in cannabis) or nicotine are to blame, though the results indicate the former: In the 29 lung fluid samples tested by health officials, THC was identified in 82 percent of them; 62 percent of the samples contained nicotine. Most patients reported a history of using THC vaping products, according to the CDC. As I wrote in September, these results reinforce early findings made by state health officials about vitamin E acetate. 

In light of this discovery, it’s worth noting that we don’t know much about the long-term impacts of vaping:

Modern nicotine e-cigarettes have only been around in the United States for a little more than a decade. With a lack of long-term studies, it’s unclear what the health effects will be for users later in life. For example, according to an extensive 2018 report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, there have been no long-term studies on the effect of nicotine e-cigarettes on cancer in humans, though there is “substantial evidence” that some chemicals present in nicotine e-cigarettes (e.g., formaldehyde) “are capable of causing DNA damage” and could increase cancer risk.

…Cannabis vaporizers have been on the market for about the same amount of time, but because marijuana is still technically a Schedule I drug under federal law, studying it has an added layer of bureaucracy. “Now that it’s being legalized, more and more scientists are trying to study [marijuana], but it wasn’t fully studied before,” Zelikoff says. “There are very few scientific studies.” 

The CDC recommends that people continue to steer clear of vaping products that contain THC and refrain from buying “any type of e-cigarette” off the street.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend

Latest

Give a Year of the Truth

at our special holiday rate

just $12

Order Now

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.