In the not too distant past, vaping had ‘fad’ status. However, the sale of e-cigarettes has increased exponentially in the last decade or so. In 2018, the CDC published a report by Vital Signs into the use of tobacco amongst high school & middle school students. In it, the researchers found that 4.9 million students used tobacco in the previous 30 days; a significant increase from the figure of 3.6 million reported in 2017.
E-cigarettes were by far the most popular ‘tobacco’ product amongst adolescents and children. In 2017, 11% of high school seniors had vaped nicotine in the previous 30 days. By 2018, that percentage had almost doubled to 21%.
It is a disturbing trend, not least because the long-term effects of vaping remain unknown. At least, that’s what we thought. Recently, the level of concern over the number of vaping-related illnesses and fatalities has increased.
The main plus point surrounding vaping and e-cigarettes is the fact it isn’t as bad as smoking! It isn’t a high bar. An estimated 1,300 people die in the United States from a tobacco-smoking related illness every single day. The World Health Organization says that tobacco kills up to 8 million people annually.
Therefore, e-cigarettes are probably healthier; primarily because they don’t kill over 20,000 people each day. However, vaping possibly kills, too.
Should Vaping Now Carry a Public Health Warning?
In September 2019, a teenager named Anthony Mayo went to the hospital. He became seriously ill and found it almost impossible to breathe because solidified vape oil filled his lungs. He is from the Pennsylvanian town of Erie, and according to his father, Keith, the 19-year old has vaped for two years. While he mainly used flavored oils, he occasionally dabbled in liquid THC.
Keith discussed his son’s condition with a local news outlet. He said that the oil is solidified and caked inside his lungs. The doctors attending to the young man said he had the lungs of a 60-year old who smokes forty cigarettes per day. Anthony’s family took him to hospital after he had a severe cough.
The facility assumed it was bronchitis and prescribed an antibiotic. Two days later, Anthony returned to the hospital’s E.R. and received a stronger antibiotic as the physicians thought he had walking pneumonia. Within days, Anthony was back in the Emergency Room, and tests showed his oxygen levels were at 36%. For reference, the Mayo Clinic says anything below 90% is dangerous!
State and federal governments are clamping down on vaping. In September 2019, New York was the first state to ban flavored e-cigarettes. Within weeks, the CDC announced over 500 cases of lung injury associated with vaping. Meanwhile, the American Medical Association is imploring vapers to stop using e-cigarettes until it identifies the cause of the outbreak of lung disease.
Walmart got involved quickly by announcing a complete ban on e-cigs in all of its American stores. Notably, some of the cases examined by the CDC include individuals who purchased unlicensed vaping products on the Black Market.
Hopefully, Anthony will recover. And if he does, he will be better off than several unfortunate individuals whose deaths are attributed to vaping.
A Tragic Tale
In the second week of September 2019, Kansas state officials confirmed the death of a woman aged 50+ from a respiratory illness. Her illness was associated with vaping. While the deceased had a history of health issues, doctors blame vaping for her sudden deterioration. Tragically, the woman in question only began using e-cigarettes a week before her death. Then, she developed a full-blown case of acute respiratory distress syndrome and passed away.
She was the sixth person to die from a condition related to vaping. At the time of writing, the vaping industry was left reeling after news of a ninth fatality due to a vaping-related illness in the United States. A man aged 50+, also from Kansas and who had underlying health conditions, passed away. Other states with similar tragedies include Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and Missouri.
Why Do People Prefer Vaping?
Upon its introduction, vaping was championed as a means of helping tobacco smokers to kick their habit. A study by Hartmann-Boyce et al., published in the Cochrane Library, analyzed whether e-cigarettes helped people to stop smoking. It was an update of a review first published in 2014.
A combination of the two studies contained over 660 people. It showed that using an electronic cigarette with nicotine increased the likelihood of stopping smoking long-term compared with a nicotine-free e-cig. While none of the studies found evidence that e-cigarette use was more dangerous than tobacco smoking, it was hardly reassuring.
In theory, e-cigs help smokers kick their habit because they can wean themselves off nicotine gradually. You can start with a 24mg nicotine cartridge and work your way down to 0mg over time.
Also, vaping exposes you to fewer carcinogens than tobacco smoking and doesn’t leave a smell on your hair and clothes. Vaporizers have innovative designs and are often so small and innocuous-looking that you can enjoy a vaping session in secret.
Science Says Vaping Is Bad for Your Lungs
E-cigarettes arrived on the scene amidst a bunch of hype. The lack of combustion means you don’t inhale the hundreds of carcinogens you are exposed to as a tobacco smoker. However, the ‘newness’ of these products meant long-term study was impossible. Now that these devices are 15+ years old, the full horror of vaping is beginning to show.
It is worth remembering that vaping may involve inhaling chemicals such as glycerin and propylene glycol. When these chemicals are heated to a high temperature, they may degrade. They may even break down into cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. While not all vapes reach these high temperatures, the fact such chemicals exist in the first place was a major red flag.
What About E-Cigarettes?
The other issue is the usage of e-cigarettes. A chain smoker named Hon Lik invented them as a means of getting the nicotine hit without the need for cigarettes. Alas, the vast range of flavors means that teenagers are buying vaping devices and e-juice cartridges in record numbers.
One teenage vaper, called Adam Hergenreder, provided a fascinating insight into why so many youths choose e-cigs. He admits trying it to ‘fit in’ and used an e-cig because ‘everyone else was doing it.’ Adam spoke about the delicious flavors such as mango which appealed to him. He noted that it doesn’t taste like a cigarette. Instead, it had a pleasant taste and the nicotine offered a head high of sorts.
Disturbingly, he purchased the e-cigarettes from a local gas station and was not asked for ID. Adam’s mother, Polly, spoke about how her son would wake up and begin puffing on his Juul device. He would then begin to cough! Soon enough, Adam started to use a pod every day and a half. Eventually, he switched to vaping THC, but over time, he began feeling very ill and started vomiting uncontrollably.
Once in the hospital, Adam’s doctors found that his lungs were on the verge of collapse. They resembled those of a 70-year old chain smoker.
What Does the Research Say?
Recent studies into e-cigarettes don’t make for pleasant reading if you are involved in the industry. A study by Ween et al., published in Respirology in 2019, found vapor from e-cigs could kill cells lining human airways. According to the research, fumes from three types of apple-flavored vaping liquid potentially destroy our bronchial epithelial cells.
In case you were wondering, these cells line our respiratory system and are crucial in helping the lungs and airways remain clean. Also, the team discovered that e-cigarette vapor might interfere with the immune system. This problem happens by disrupting white blood cells that digest and store foreign debris and unhealthy cells.
Another study by Hee Lee et al., was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in June 2019. It found that e-cigarette flavors could damage the cells that line our blood vessels. According to the study’s authors, such changes to the cells’ ability to survive and function may result in a higher risk of heart disease.
The researchers tested six liquids with different nicotine concentrations. Ultimately, the e-juice caused toxic effects such as signs of increased inflammation and lower cell survival on a type of cardiovascular cell. The study authors believe the damage is caused by a combination of nicotine and the various additives in the e-juice.
In October 2018, Alzahrani et al. published a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The team found an association between e-cigarette use and myocardial infarction. In other words, usage of e-cigs could increase your risk of having a heart attack. While the risk isn’t as high as it is with tobacco cigarettes, it is still bad news for your cardiovascular health.
What About Popcorn Lung?
Also known as Bronchiolitis Obliterans, Popcorn Lung is an irreversible disease which includes damage of the tiny air sacs in the lungs. The name comes from a case where numerous employees of a Missourian popcorn factory received a diagnosis of the condition in the 1990s.
There are still e-cigarette cartridges that contain diacetyl, the most likely cause of popcorn lung amongst vapers. A study by Allen et al. was featured in Environmental Health Perspectives in June 2016. It found the chemical in 75% of flavored e-cigs and refill liquids. The researchers also found two other concerning compounds in the juices.
By the way, diacetyl is in microwave popcorn; it is responsible for that buttery taste you enjoy. Before you panic, it appears as if consuming diacetyl via popcorn is fine. However, inhaling it over a medium or long-term is a recipe for popcorn lung.
Is Vaping Marijuana Dangerous?
It is too early to say one way or another. What’s concerning is how quickly cases of vaping-related illness are manifesting themselves. We have heard of hundreds within the last couple of months, after years of little drama. It is true that some of these vapers made the mistake of purchasing their products from unlicensed sellers. There is every chance that these products contain an array of terrible ingredients.
Even so, there are plenty of cases involving the use of ‘reputable’ e-cigarette brands. The question is this: Is the process of vaping itself dangerous, or is it ‘only’ e-juice? The concoction of chemicals and nicotine in e-juice are implicated in every case to date. In a small percentage of instances, the victims also used THC. Was the damage already done before THC was involved, or did the cannabinoid contribute to the condition?
Individual states have launched investigations; perhaps the results will give us some idea of what is going on. In New York, for example, health officials found high levels of the chemical vitamin E acetate in almost every marijuana vaping product. At least one vaping product containing the compound is linked with each person in New York who succumbed to a vaping-related illness.
Is There a Solution to the Vaping Problem?
The CDC is also heavily involved in trying to find a solution to the vaping crisis. The oil solvent ingredients in e-cigarettes are potentially another cause. The New York Times asserts that inhaling these oils could cause significant lung problems. Concerningly for the weed industry, the FDA has urged Americans not to vape THC oils due to the findings in New York.
In September 2019, The New England Journal of Medicine* reported that 20% of studied patients with vaping-related illnesses in Wisconsin did not ingest THC at all. Also, vaping products don’t always offer a full list of ingredients. While Vitamin E acetates are a prime suspect, they are sold as vitamin supplements with no apparent ill effects.
Perhaps it is a case of a product only becoming harmful with inhaled as a vapor rather than swallowed. With this in mind, there is a possibility that marijuana has no effects on the lungs when smoked or ingested, but causes issues when vaporized. A LOT of research is necessary before we conclude.
Then there is the possibility of a different, unlisted, ingredient causing all of the issues. With this in mind, it is high time that ALL e-cigarette manufacturers are forced to provide a full list of ingredients. This is possibly a moot point, however, as e-cigarettes may feel the full force of the government ban hammer.
Final Thoughts on Vaping & What It May Do to the Lungs
There seems little doubt that the vaping industry is under severe threat. If the United States Government issues a nationwide ban on e-cigarettes, it will ruin the industry in North America. It will also destroy the market globally as other nations will surely follow suit. The spate of deaths could spell the end of the fledgling e-cigarette market.
Oddly, a relatively small amount of deaths may finish e-cigs, while the tobacco industry goes strong. This is despite the fact that it will kill close to one billion people this century. This isn’t to say that vaping should remain. If it is proven to kill people, it is only right for it to receive a total ban. However, that logic can also apply to tobacco cigarettes, guns, alcohol, and of course, opioids.
If you are unperturbed and wish to continue using e-cigarettes, DO NOT buy products off the street. If you do, you are risking severe lung damage. As far as vaporizing cannabis is concerned, the evidence suggests the problem lies in e-juice rather than vapor from marijuana.
Once again, we urge you to avoid illegal sellers of cannabis oil. You have no idea what garbage they put into your product. If THC is implicated, it is most likely down to how it is processed rather than the cannabinoid itself. Remember, when producing cannabis oil for vaping, the THC is suspended in an oil solution that includes chemicals to change the consistency and flavor of the mixture.
Until we know more, it is best to play it safe and avoid e-cigarettes until we find an answer. As for vaping marijuana, there is possibly a risk. If you must vape weed, use a plant product and a vaporizer from a reputable producer.
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