CHICAGO — More than 1,000 people across nearly every state have been sickened by a respiratory illness linked to vaping that continues to vex public health officials, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC’s investigation into the illness has confirmed 1,080 cases across 48 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, officials said Thursday. Eighteen of those patients in 15 states have died, and the CDC continues to investigate additional deaths, signaling that number could grow in the coming days, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC principal deputy director.
Despite the “brisk pace” of the spread of the illness (though the increase is also credited to additional reporting of older cases), officials from the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration still cannot identify specific products or ingredients causing harm.
“There’s a lot we do not know about what’s in e-cigarettes or vaping products,” Schuchat said. “There may be a lot of different nasty things in e-cigarettes or vaping products, and they may cause different harm in the lungs.”
Trends among the patients remain consistent, she said. They are mostly male and mostly young, and most report vaping products with THC, the ingredient in marijuana that creates a high. The median age of those who have died, however, is 49 1/2, according to the CDC.
Last week, public officials offered the first clue as to what could be causing the mystery illness — black market products with THC — but officials cautioned Thursday that they still can’t identify a single product. Patients started to become hospitalized in droves this summer, with symptoms that included difficulty breathing, chest pains and gastrointestinal distress, among other things.
The FDA continues to test products used by those sickened, and has found mixtures of THC and vitamin E acetate, a compound that’s dangerous when inhaled, said Judy McMeekin, deputy associate commissioner for regulatory affairs at the FDA. But no one product or ingredient was identified in all samples, she said, adding that it’s been difficult to test the vaping products because some have little to no liquid inside them.
However, based on lung biopsies from 17 patients with the mystery illness, a Mayo Clinic study concluded that toxic chemical fumes, not vitamin E acetate, are more likely to be to blame.
In a study released last week of patients in Illinois and Wisconsin — the first states to notice that people with vaping habits were falling ill — most reported using THC vaping products they obtained through friends, off the street or otherwise illegally, and identified the brand Dank Vapes.
Dank Vapes, according to the report, are vaping products prominent among a group of counterfeit brands that have common packaging and a logo, yet “no obvious centralized production or distribution.”
Loyal e-cigarette users and small-business owners who sell products to vape nicotine have long said devices with only nicotine remain safe, but CDC officials said they still aren’t sure, and they continue to warn the public about all vaping.