Update: On Friday, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Anne Schuchat, said the agency had a breakthrough after months of trying to figure out what's causing the vaping-related illnesses ravaging the country. Vitamin E acetate, an additive found in some vaping products (often those with THC), may be to blame, she said.
"These new findings are significant," Schuchat said, CNN reports. "We have a strong culprit."
"This does not rule out other possible ingredients," she added. "There may be more than one cause." The CDC will continue to test other chemicals and research other potential causes of the vaping-related illnesses that have caused at least 39 deaths in the U.S. so far.
This story was originally published on September 6, 2019.
Officials are homing in on Vitamin E acetate as they investigate 450 suspected cases of vaping-related respiratory illnesses — which were connected to three deaths. recently. The Washington Post reports that federal investigators have pinpointed a chemical used in marijuana vaping products that’s been tied to vaping-related illnesses in different areas of the country. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the chemical — an oil that comes from Vitamin E — was found in various vape brands that were collected as samples from patients who got sick in various states. They said it was a common denominator found in almost all of the marijuana samples, the New York State Department of Health noted in a press release. It’s not found in nicotine e-cigs, like the Juul, that have been tested.
“Vtamin E acetate is now a key focus of the department's investigation of potential causes of vaping-associated pulmonary illnesses,” New York’s department of health said in the release.
This may leave you wondering: Is all vitamin E bad? The answer is probably not in topical and vitamin forms.
“Vitamin E acetate is a commonly available nutritional supplement that is not known to cause harm when ingested as a vitamin supplement or applied to the skin,” New York’s department of health says. “However, the department continues to investigate its health effects when inhaled because its oil-like properties could be associated with the observed symptoms.”
NBC News notes that many of the lung issues reported have officially been diagnosed as lipoid pneumonia, which happens when cells with a large amount of lipids are concentrated in the lungs. One way to get this is by inhaling oil. NBC notes that this isn’t the first time vitamin E oil has been called out in a case of vaping-related lung sickness. There was one incident in Canada back in 2000, in which a patient “admitted to inhaling home brews of marijuana oil made with either petroleum jelly or vitamin E oil.” There was another recorded case in the U.S. in 2012.
With that said, officials don’t know enough to place all the blame on vitamin E acetate.
"No one substance, including vitamin E acetate, has been identified in all of the samples tested," an FDA spokesman told NBC News. "Importantly, identifying any compounds that are present in the samples will be one piece of the puzzle but will not necessarily answer questions about causality."
If anything, this news helps make sense of a warning issued by the CDC last week about black market products you can buy “off the street.” The warning seemed to specifically target cannabis vapes, because those are illegal in most parts of the country and would warrant under-the-table sales.
"The cases of pulmonary illnesses associated with vaping are continuing to rise across New York State and the country," New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a statement. "We urge the public to be vigilant about any vaping products that they or any family members may be using and to immediately contact their health care provider if they develop any unusual symptoms. In general, vaping of unknown substances is dangerous, and we continue to explore all options to combat this public health issue."