Researchers Is Not Sure About Vaping-Related Illnesses

JUDY WOODRUFF: States around the country continue
to crack down on flavored e-cigarettes and other vaping products.
Much of that is in response to the deaths
and illnesses that began coming to light this summer.
But even as lawmakers are trying to determine
what to do, researchers are still trying to
better understand the cause of these illnesses.
Miles O'Brien has been looking into that very
question for our regular series on the Leading Edge of science.
MILES O'BRIEN: Like at least five million
young Americans, 18-year-old Adam Hergenreder
started vaping electronic cigarettes two years
ago, because everyone else was doing it.
He loved all the flavors.
ADAM HERGENREDER, Former E-Cigarette User:
Mint tasted just like a mint.
Mango tasted just like a mango.
Cucumber tasted just like a cucumber.
So I didn't really know that it had nicotine in it.
MILES O'BRIEN: It is an extremely potent punch of nicotine.
He preferred the strong pods made by Juul.
Each carries as much of the highly addictive
drug as a pack of cigarettes.
E-cigarettes, or vape pens, use a battery
to heat a coil, which turns a nicotine infused
liquid into an aerosol.
Before too long, Adam was inhaling a pod-and-a-half a day.
I mean, I knew I was addicted, but I just couldn't quit.
MILES O'BRIEN: Eventually, the nicotine rush
from Juul wasn't enough for him.
So he bought some black market vape pens containing cannabis oil.
And, soon, he was enjoying head rushes from
both nicotine and THC,the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
ADAM HERGENREDER: The Juul lasted about 10 seconds.
The THC product lasted about an hour.
That's why I switched over to that.
MILES O'BRIEN: But at the end of August, he got sick, very sick.
ADAM HERGENREDER: I started to experience some tremors.
And then that was for about a day.
And then the next three days, I started throwing
up violently, again, throughout the whole day.
MILES O'BRIEN: He ended up here at the Advocate
Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Illinois.
Pulmonologist Stephen Amesbury showed me Adam's initial chest X-ray.
All that haziness is inflammation.
When you see a 17- or an 18-year-old with
a chest X-ray like that, what is the next step?
What do you do as a doctor? DR.
STEPHEN AMESBURY, Advocate Condell Medical
Center: Many months ago, the consideration
would primarily be pneumonia or some possible
toxins or if they have taken some drugs.
Nowadays, in light of all the vaping illnesses,
that's one of the first questions we ask young
people when they come in with breathing problems.
MILES O'BRIEN: Adam had EVALI, or E-cigarette
or Vaping Product Use-Associated Lung Injury.
The condition emerged in Illinois and Wisconsin
in April.
As of December 3, it had sickened nearly 2,300
mostly young people nationwide.
Half of them, like Adam, end up in intensive
care, many attached to ventilators.
One young person required a lung transplant.
And 48 have died.
Adam came close.
It's killed some people.
Could it have killed him?
STEPHEN AMESBURY: If he hadn't come in, and
just tried to stick it out at home a few more
days, absolutely.
MILES O'BRIEN: All those young people with
very sick lungs triggered a series of investigations
by state health authorities and the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention.
ANNE SCHUCHAT, Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention: What we know now is that the
vast majority of individuals have a history
of using vaping products that contain THC.
MILES O'BRIEN: Anne Schuchat is the principal
deputy director.
ANNE SCHUCHAT: So, our laboratory tested 29
samples from 29 patients from 10 different
states around the country and looked at 12
different chemical tests.
And we found 29 of 29 patient specimens had
vitamin E acetate.
MILES O'BRIEN: Vitamin E acetate, the nutritional
supplement is inexpensive, unregulated and
widely available.
It's fine to ingest or use topically, but
when inhaled, the sticky substance interferes
with normal lung functions.
It nevertheless became a favored choice in
the black market as a way to dilute pure cannabis
oil, which has a similar color and viscosity.
Testing labs in states where cannabis use
is legal analyze marijuana for its potency
and screen for contaminants, heavy metals,
pesticides and mold.
But, before this crisis, they weren't looking
for vitamin E acetate.
MICHAEL KAHN, President, MCR Labs: We don't
have screen for everything.
We're not "Star Trek."
We can screen for specific compounds.
MILES O'BRIEN: Michael Kahn is president and
founder of MCR Labs in Framingham, Massachusetts.
As EVALI emerged, he and his team quickly
developed a way to screen for vitamin E acetate.
MICHAEL KAHN: It was an immediate public health
concern to us, so we offered it for free,
and we still do, to anybody who needs to bring
in samples just to make sure they're safe.
We have received 56 samples from regular walk-in citizens.
MILES O'BRIEN: They found nine of those cannabis
oil samples were tainted with vitamin E acetate.
MICHAEL KAHN: Every instance of vitamin E
acetate was from somebody who walked in, not
through the marijuana establishment regulated market.
MILES O'BRIEN: But the EVALI case is still not closed.
Twenty percent of patients afflicted do not admit vaping THC.
There is evidence other substances could pose a danger as well.
And so some urgent research continues.
Pulmonologist Jeff Gotts is an assistant professor
at the University of California, San Francisco.
He has built a device that systematically
exposes the aerosols from e-cigarettes to
cells cultured from donor human lungs rejected for transplantation.
The work is ongoing, but, so far, cells exposed
for an hour a day, three days in a row, to
the chemicals used to dissolve nicotine in
Juul e-cigarettes show preliminary signs of damage.
JEFF GOTTS, University of California, San
Francisco: It may be the case that this had
been going on for a while in different forms
in a low level, and we're going to be able
to see a lot better what the real incidence
of disease from all of these exposures is
now that we have everybody's attention.
MILES O'BRIEN: First touted as a smoking cessation
tool, e-cigarettes got very popular very quickly,
with virtually no regulatory oversight, and
no research on its implications to human health.
JEFF GOTTS: In many senses, it is a horrifying
experiment that people are performing on themselves
with these different inhalational exposures,
that we have absolutely no sense of their
long-term safety.
MILES O'BRIEN: With THC vaping oil, not only
is there the same lack of safety data, but
there are extra daunting hurdles to filling the research gap.
The federal government still considers marijuana
a controlled substance, in the same legal
category as heroin and LSD.
It means scientists can only procure marijuana
for research from one federally sanctioned site in Mississippi.
And it doesn't produce the sort of cannabis
oil products people are inhaling.
To what extent is this a result of the confusion
and the discontinuity in all the laws and
regulations across this country?
KATE PHILLIPS, Cannabis Community Care and
Research Network: Oh, I think it's a direct result.
MILES O'BRIEN: Kate Phillips is director of
education for the Cannabis Community Care
and Research Network in Massachusetts.
KATE PHILLIPS: We have an industry that's
supported by the state, and then everything after that's hands up.
So, when a problem like this happens, everyone's
scattered, and nobody really knows who's the
point person to go to, who needs to collaborate,
who needs to lead on this.
And, again, it's up to the companies.
It's up to the public health officials in each state.
And that's where we got to where we are today.
MILES O'BRIEN: Meanwhile, the vaping trend
keeps growing, especially among teens.
Public health experts worry, if no action
is taken, this health crisis will only get
worse in the short and long term.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Gurney, Illinois.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Such important reporting.