Healthy Living: Growing concerns over vaping-related illnesses

SEATTLE, Wash.,-- The number of kids vaping nicotine has doubled in the past two years.

According to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the rate of e-cigarette use among eighth, 10th and 12th graders continued to climb in 2019. In fact, it doubled from 2017 to 2019.

So far this year, 25 percent of 12th grade students said they vaped within the previous month. For tenth grade, it was one in five students. One in 11 students in eighth grade said they vaped within the previous month. The study looked at data from more than 42,000 students.

There are currently hundreds of cases of severe breathing illness now, all said to be caused, in part, by vaping. Officials investigating the outbreak are looking at flavored e-cigarettes and counterfeit marijuana oil as two possible factors.

While they have found common ground among the cases, they're still far from determining what the exact cause is.

Officials believe that specific flavored particles in e-cigarettes can damage the lungs, airways and blood vessels.

They’re also eyeing counterfeit versions of cannabis oil, containing THC, which is the high-inducing part of marijuana.

A health and human services spokesperson says the agency knows many patients used THC vapes.

Not all states allow the sale of marijuana oils, so some of them were no doubt purchased on the black market, and contained many unknown ingredients.

Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says,  "We know that people are adulterating the products very frequently.  We know that people are putting additives in."

Adding to the problem, counterfeit THC oils are being packaged to look like legitimate, regulated brands.

Dr. Crystal Shen is with the Washington Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics says, "We know that vaping is harmful we just don`t know the full extent of all the harms quite yet. and we've seen e-cigarettes on the market for the past few years and we knew there were lost of chemicals in them that aren't well-regulated that could cause lung injury and now we are seeing deaths from it." 

Two brothers in Wisconsin are facing multiple felonies for running a large operation, creating their own THC vaping cartridges.

Sheriff David Beth, Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department, "There were 31,000 cartridges ready to get shipped out and tens of thousands more waiting to get filled."

Health officials have not found a direct link between the vaping illnesses and the Wisconsin brothers, but, say their operation is evidence e-cigarette users need to be aware of what they're buying, and what they're inhaling.

Robert Strongin, Portland State University says,  "We just don't know. It could be the materials themselves. You could have some really bad impurities."

Shen says it’s important to talk to your kids about vaping, "Because a lot of vaping equipment is so hard to detect, there is no smoke or odor to detect. I encourage open communication and with all this new information, it’s scary to me as a doctor and it’s scary to parents so I’d really encourage open discussion and communication."

And whether it's THC cartridges, strawberry oil or tobacco vapes, users are being urged to think twice about all the chemicals they're ingesting.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has activated its emergency operations center, creating a central command post for investigating the illnesses.

Health officials across the country are urging e-cig users to just stop using the devices until they figure out the source of the illness. They add the damage done by vaping is irreversible.