Head in the clouds

Outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries causes widespread concern


Tara Sachar

Novo by Smok is a popular brand for high school students. Many students are also drawn to sweet flavors, like the berry eJuice on the right.

By Madi Olivier, Marcus High School

It was the worst case local pulmonologist Adekunle Adekola had seen. The patient — a woman in her thirties — recently walked into the hospital complaining of shortness of breath, coughing and a fever, but she was breathing on her own. Soon, she required almost 100 percent oxygen.

Her history of vaping made it clear to Adekola — who works in both Flower Mound and Lewisville — that she was suffering from a lung injury caused by her use of e-cigarettes, just like he saw with three other patients. The local Flower Mound area isn’t exempt from the national outbreak.

“We were actually close to putting her on a ventilator, but luckily she responded quite quickly to treatment and we were able to avoid that,” Adekola said.

The cause of the “vaping illness” is unknown, but recent research suggests that THC, the illegal chemical that causes most of marijuana’s effects, might be to blame.

The Denton County Sheriff’s office is seeing an increase in THC products and is seizing more of them. On Sept. 24, deputies arrested a man after they discovered 4,980 THC vape cartridges, 15 pounds of marijuana and 1.2 pounds of THC wax in his car during a traffic stop.

Although no single product has been linked to all of the lung injury cases, all patients diagnosed with the illness said that they had a history of vaping, and 86 percent of them reported using THC products, according to the CDC.

“The few cases I’ve encountered, all the patients have been exposed to THC vapes,” Adekola said. “However, that being said, almost all these patients also were exposed to other vaping products. So is it the THC in the vape, or other flavorings or other additives in the vape device? More stories are needed to clarify that.”

According to the Texas Department of State Health, there were 147 confirmed or probable cases of the lung illnesses in Texas as of Oct. 22. On Oct. 9, the agency verified that a woman in North Texas died after a history of vaping, which was the first vaping-related death in the state.

“It’s kind of scary because some of my acquaintances vape,” junior Tori Rees said. “The fact that at any point, because of this one thing that they do, someone could just die — that’s really scary.”

According to the CDC, 14 percent of cases are seen in people under 18 years old.

“The thing that’s scary about it is that it’s occurred to adults, but also very young teenagers who are vaping,” school nurse Margot Ell said. “Some of these kids are desperately ill. Some are going on ventilators. They’re drawing liters of fluid [out] of their lungs.”

The first signs of the illness started in April. They included ailments such as trouble breathing, chest pain, coughing, nausea and fatigue. The first vaping-related death was reported on Aug. 23 in Illinois. Since then, the number of reported cases and deaths has continued to climb.

“When you vape, you are inhaling stuff into your lungs that is not supposed to be there,” Adekola said. “So it just makes common sense that with time, your body will begin to react to it negatively.”

At the end of August, there were almost 200 known cases in 22 states. As of Oct. 22, there have been 34 reported deaths and 1,604 known cases across 49 states, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands, according to the CDC.

The issue has recently caught the attention of government officials, prompting legislation changes involving vaping and e-cigarettes. However, the products aren’t regulated. The industry that revolves around producing them is worldwide and made up of complex relationships involving production and packaging.

Additionally, there are limitless ways that people can modify vaping products, which can be obtained from a wide range of places. This makes it difficult to define a specific product as the culprit.

“If you don’t have as much money and you’re a teenager, you’re going to get what you can at a gas station, a smoke shop, a friend and those things,” Ell said. “Because they’re not regulated, we just don’t know what [is in them.]”

However, if teens get involved in vaping or smoking, stopping can be extremely difficult, according to Ell. Most resources for quitting, such as nicotine patches and gum, are aimed towards adults.

Some students believe that teenagers won’t be likely to try and stop vaping, despite the rise of the lung injuries.

“People who’ve already vaped, they knew that they didn’t know what was going to happen,” Rees said. “Now that there’s something happening, I don’t know of anyone stopping, so I don’t think it will really change.”

On the other hand, some students think that the new risk of vaping will encourage teenagers to find a way to quit.

“It’ll probably make them stop,” senior John Babbidge said. “People want to preserve their body.”

Ell is hoping that the rise in the illness will encourage students to avoid vaping and that more resources will be offered to students that already vape and want to quit.

“Hopefully it’ll scare them into not trying it,” Ell said. “My hope is that we will start helping kids. If kids are scared and really want to stop, that we can try and offer them some kind of a step-down product.”

This story was originally published on The Marquee on October 28, 2019.