A mysterious and sometimes deadly lung illness linked to vaping may be tied to vitamin E additives in some marijuana products, federal authorities say.
Health officials across the country have been sounding an alarm about a rapid rise in serious lung disease among people who vape. Testing by the Food and Drug Administration found vitamin E acetate — the oil derived from the vitamin — in a majority of the marijuana products patients said they had used prior to becoming ill, the Washington Post reports.
While humans are able to safely digest vitamin E acetate when ingested in food or drink, or placed on the skin in a lotion or cream, health officials told the Post that inhaling it may be posing serious health risks.
As one chemistry professor explained to the Post:
Vitamin E acetate is basically grease, said Michelle Francl, a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College. Its molecular structure means that “you have to heat it up pretty hot” for it to vaporize.
Once the oil is heated hot enough to vaporize, it can potentially decompose, and “now you’re breathing in who-knows-what,” Francl said.
When that vapor cools down in the lungs, it returns to its original state at that temperature and pressure, she said, which means “it has now coated the inside of your lungs with that oil,” she said.
Patients suffering from the illness have complained of a variety of respiratory problems, including coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain.
Concern about the illness is very real, with the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes and other vaping products along with the rise in the legalization of marijuana in states throughout the country.
Officials say more testing must be done to determine if vitamin E acetate in pot products is the definitive cause of a lung illness that has left health officials baffled, the Post reports.
They say they are also not ruling out whether possible contaminants in nicotine products could also pose a problem.
As the Post notes:
Many patients have told officials and clinicians that they bought cannabis products off the street. Many of those who have fallen ill say they have vaped products containing marijuana, but some also used traditional nicotine e-cigarettes. Many report using both.
However, the illness is a serious one: It has so far killed at least two people and sickened a possible 215 in 25 states, according to the Post, which reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also is investigating additional reports of trouble.