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Link Between Marijuana Vaping and Deadly Lung Disorders

  • September 16, 2019
  • KBA Attorneys
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Federal and state health officials who have been investigating strange lung illnesses that are seemingly connected to vaping have found a similar chemical showing up in samples taken from marijuana products used by sickened individuals. The illnesses have appeared in various parts of the U.S. in recent weeks, and the victims used different brands of vaping products.

Why is Marijuana Vaping Causing Injuries?

Food and Drug Administration investigators have found oil in cannabis products collected from infected patients across the country. New York’s state health department found the same chemical connected to affected New York patients. Health officials say it’s too early to tell if this first common factor is causing the injuries.

The oil is known as vitamin E acetate and is derived from vitamin E. When used as a supplement by the mouth or as a topical skin treatment, there are no known problems with vitamin E. However, its molecular structure could possibly be hazardous if inhaled. When used in this manner, the oil’s properties could potentially cause the types of respiratory symptoms showing up in many patients: shortness of breath, cough, and chest pain.

The FDA reported that lab tests did not uncover anything unusual in the nicotine products collected from infected individuals. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is leading the investigation, and an official from the agency said, “We don’t know what we’re looking for.” There is no requirement for vaping-related illnesses to be reported to the CDC and officials are attempting to define the illness and create a standardized system to collect information from the states. Meanwhile, additional cases are being reported to state health departments weekly. By August 27, at least 215 possible cases had been reported in 25 states.

More Research and Studies Needed

Health authorities in Oregon disclosed that the middle-aged victim who died in July from a serious respiratory illness had used a vaping device with marijuana oil bought at a legal dispensary. The man’s death is the second nationwide to be linked to vaping and the first case to be connected to a product purchased at a store.

Federal and state health authorities have announced they will focus on counterfeit substances and contaminants as likely causes of the mysterious vaping-related lung illnesses. Some affected individuals told officials they had bought street cannabis products, while others reported using regular nicotine e-cigarettes. Some victims used both. Authorities are considering the possibility of adulterants being added to nicotine vaping products.

The FDA is “looking into potential leads regarding any particular constituent or compound that may be at issue,” even though its agency and the Wadsworth Center lab in New York both found a common chemical, vitamin E acetate. The FDA is checking samples for chemicals like nicotine, THC, “cutting agents” that dilute liquid substances, other cannabinoids, pesticides, poisons, other additives, opioids, and toxins. 

Michael Felberbaum, an FDA spokesman, reports this: “The number of samples received continues to increase and we now have over 100 samples for testing. No one substance, including vitamin E acetate, has been identified in all of the samples tested.” He further added, “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.” Regarding the discovery of “significant amounts of vitamin E acetate,” the FDA gives the advice that “it is prudent to avoid inhaling this substance,” even though there is not enough data available to conclude that vitamin E acetate is responsible for the lung injuries that are manifesting.

Regarding New York’s investigation of more than a dozen tested samples that revealed “very high levels of vitamin E acetate in nearly all” of the cannabis samples, New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said, “Vitamin E acetate is not an approved additive for New York State Medical Marijuana Program-authorized vape samples and was not seen in the nicotine-based products that were tested. As a result, vitamin E acetate is now a key focus” of the state’s investigation.

Increase in Vaping Related Injuries and Deaths

As of the first week of September, New York doctors had reported 34 cases of serious pulmonary illness among individuals between the ages of 15 and 46 who used at least one vaping product containing cannabis before becoming ill. Authorities suspect counterfeit recreational cannabis vaping products may have been used.

The second death from this mysterious lung disease occurred in Oregon. According to Oregon Health Authority physician Ann Thomas, “It was surprising that the patient suddenly appeared without any other underlying health conditions and became ill enough to die from this syndrome.”

Vaping With Vitamin E Acetate

The practice of vaping involves heating a liquid substance in an e-cigarette device, then inhaling the vapor that may contain marijuana, nicotine or other drugs. A chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College, Michelle Francl, says the composition of vitamin E acetate is mainly grease, and “you have to heat it up pretty hot” to vaporize it. The substance requires a temperature of 363 degrees Fahrenheit to boil, well above the boiling point of water (212 degrees Fahrenheit). If the oil gets hot enough to vaporize, it could decompose, and “now you’re breathing in who-knows-what,” according to Francl. After the vapor cools down inside the lungs, it resumes its original state at that pressure and temperature, she explains, and “it has now coated the inside of your lungs with that oil.”

The Effects Vaping

Utah clinicians have diagnosed a number of patients with lipoid pneumonia, a rare illness in which patients have difficulty breathing and chest pains. Doctors discovered that these individuals had abnormal, lipid-filled immune cells. Because the lungs are only designed to handle gases, they cannot break down foreign substances and get rid of them.

At the University of California’s San Diego School of Medicine, lung inflammation and e-cigarette researcher Laura Crotty Alexander explains that when cells in the lungs die, an inflammatory response is triggered, and “other cells need to come in and clean up the cell debris.” However, because of the delicacy of the lungs, when the other cells enter, “they get in the way of gas exchange,” making it difficult for crucial oxygen to enter an individual’s bloodstream. The inflammation can cause a build-up of fluid in the lungs, making breathing nearly impossible.

Doctors and health officials are scrambling to pinpoint the exact cause of this outcropping of mysterious lung issues sweeping the nation. They do seem to agree, however, that there appears to be a definite connection with vaping.  

Are You Suffering Lung Illness Due to Vaping?

KBA Attorneys offers legal representation and assistance to those who have been injured by e-cigarettes such as Juul. Vaping is becoming a nationwide epidemic and victims can fight for compensation for their pain and suffering by working with a product liability attorney


Lena H. Sun. “Contaminant found in marijuana vaping products linked to deadly lung illnesses, tests show”, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2019/09/05/contaminant-found-vaping-products-linked-deadly-lung-illnesses-state-federal-labs-show/?arc404=true. Accessed September 10, 2019.