The city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, recently issued a serious health warning to the community: stop using e-cigarettes immediately.
Across the country, health officials are concerned about a recent outbreak of severe lung injuries among users of e-cigarettes, which are popular among teenagers and young adults.
Over the past two months, nearly 200 vapers in 22 states have reported coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea and vomiting. One person in Illinois died of severe respiratory illness linked to e-cigarette use.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is investigating all of these cases.
“What’s clear now is something that was certainly publicized and understood — assumed — to be safe, clearly is not,” says Dr. Emily Chapman, chief medical officer of Children’s Minnesota. “There is clearly risk both acutely — and we are concerned that there is risk long term — with these devices.”
At Children’s Minnesota, Chapman has recently seen 14 cases linked to vaping. Initially, those patients, whose ages range from 15 to 23 years old, came in with what appeared to be a routine infection. But despite being treated, all 14 patients ended up with significant lung disease, and in some drastic cases, lung failure, she says.
“Some only require oxygen support,” she says, “but many of them have required devices to assist their breathing and in some cases ventilators.”
After medical care, many of the patients have seen improvement in lung function since first arriving at the hospital. But Chapman says doctors still don’t know whether the patients will be able to return to their baseline lung function since using e-cigarettes.
“We also don’t know what the impact of this kind of an injury on their lungs will be long term, whether they’ll be scarring or loss of lung function long term,” she says.
Scientists and researchers haven’t pinpointed what is “causing this kind of toxic injury to the lung,” she says, made difficult by the increase of home-grown vaping products, which may include more nicotine, THC, or even be nicotine-free.
“I think the bottom line is we have no idea what these different substances are doing whether it’s the drug itself, be it nicotine or THC or anything else, or whether it’s something that it is prepared in that is causing this kind of toxic injury to the lung,” she says.
As the wait continues for robust scientific research regarding the safety of these devices, and as more and more health issues result from vaping, Chapman says we must support the CDC, the FDA and local health departments’ investigations “as urgently as we can.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.