Across the country, emergency rooms are admitting patients suffering from severely inflamed lungs, accelerated heart rate and labored breathing.
While some patients report an onset of flu-like symptoms, primarily fever and nausea, symptoms can rapidly escalate. Many patients begin coughing up blood as fevers skyrocket, resulting in the brain starting to shut down.
As the cases of vaping-related lung injuries and illnesses increase, Utah remains on the forefront of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Surgeon General’s office are calling an “epidemic.” The CDC reports that Utah’s numbers are six times the national average, with 109 confirmed cases — including one death. That number is roughly 10 times higher than neighboring states. Just recently, a 17-yer-old SLCC employee was hospitalized with respiratory illness due to vaping.
Philip Howland, a doctor of nursing practice and certified nurse practitioner, splits his time between South City and Taylorsville Redwood campuses working in the Center for Health and Counseling. Howland expresses concern that this issue could heavily impact our student body.
“Any kind of nicotine for adolescents or young adults is bad for the brain and not recommended,” Howland says. “We know our brains are maturing through our mid-twenties … we know it can have an adverse effect on the development of the brain. [Nicotine] is one of the most highly addictive substances.”
According to the CDC, the national median age of patients is 24. The median age for a student enrolled at Salt Lake Community College is 23. As we look around campus, it becomes clear that vapes have become as commonplace as cell phones or keys.
“We are seeing a lot of increase in people who vape who didn’t previously use any sort of tobacco or nicotine products,” Howland says, noting he worries about the lack of strong regulations on vaping products. “It’s like the wild west and that should give people some pause.”
Margaret Shaw, a sociology major at SLCC, used vaping to kick the habit of smoking cigarettes. The now 21-year-old started vaping at the age of 18 when smoking began taking a toll on her health.
“Vaping is less of a health hazard for me personally, as cigarettes often gave me a cough or sore throat while e-cigs do not. I felt like I was out of breath all of the time,” she says.
Shaw admits vaping has become a daily habit.
“I definitely have cravings like a cigarette smoker, but I don’t spend obscene amounts of money [vaping],” she says.
Not having to go outside or smell like an ashtray has also been a draw for Shaw. For many, those are benefits vaping offers over cigarettes.
“Vaping is very socially acceptable,” Howland explains. “You can vape in classrooms without really being noticed. You can vape in places where before, because [of] the negative impacts of society, you wouldn’t feel comfortable lighting up a cigarette.”
Shaw feels a sense of frustration about how vaping is perceived.
“I feel vaping as a whole is being attacked while ignoring the issues of off-market unregulated products,” she says. “We can stop these unregulated harmful products by legalizing THC and creating a system that regulates the ingredients while taking business away from the off market.”
Cases of severe pulmonary illness, comas and death have led to sweeping bans of vaping products throughout the United States. Such bans are creating hurdles for the medical marijuana community.
Christine Stenquist, a patient advocate and founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), has a history of battling such hurdles.
After undergoing surgery in her twenties to partially remove a brain tumor, Stenquist suffered a stroke. This began a complex array of medical issues and symptoms that left her bedridden. Feeling that prescribed medication was failing her, she turned to self-medicating with marijuana in 2012.
“Vaping offers a patient immediate relief from their symptoms,” she says. “Medication enters the bloodstream quite rapidly … giving three to four hours of lasting relief.”
Stenquist prefers vaping dry herbal flower but does use oil cartridges as well.
“It’s a discrete method I use for when I’m away from home for emergency attacks,” she explains. “Micro dosing with the vaporizing method is easier to regulate because a patient medicates to symptom relief. You inhale until you feel better.”
Other methods, like edibles and oils, can have a significantly longer delay.
As the FDA and CDC use words like “epidemic” and “outbreak,” patients like Stenquist worry it will create roadblocks in accessing cannabis.
“Verbiage is extremely important and when dealing with a tainted product situation, using hyperbole to demonize an industry causes misguided public panic,” she says. “Address the problem, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
As for keeping consumers safe, Stenquist says ending federal prohibition is a start.
“Transparency in the marketplace creates accountability and allows for effective regulation when necessary,” she says. “Illegal markets aren’t disappearing, they’re adapting. As we continue to experience the painfully slow rollouts in each state, we’ll surely continue to see subpar products that are hard to trace.”
Many unknowns remain regarding these vaping illnesses. Howland admits healthcare professionals are on their “back foot” with these cases.
“We are having discussions with our students, with our patients, across our whole team,” he says. “I think that’s where our opportunity is, to not have people start in the first place.”
The New England Journal of Medicine published a study last month which noted the presence of fat-laden cells in the lungs of patients, possibly the result of vaping.
New findings announced by the CDC on Nov. 8 escalate the standing of vitamin E acetate, calling it a, “strong culprit.” The chemical is a known additive used to dilute vaping solutions.
Vitamin E acetate, a synthetic form of vitamin E, is commonly used in everything from skin care products and makeup to daily supplements. The substance is known for being oily and viscous.
According to a CNN report, Dr. James Pirkle, a physician with the CDC, characterizes vitamin E acetate as “enormously sticky” when it goes into the lungs, saying it “does hang around.”
The CDC warns that this does not rule out other ingredients and that the investigation is ongoing.