State officals concerned about vape-related lung illnesses

State officials are monitoring an ongoing investigation headed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration, following an outbreak of severe lung illnesses associated with vaping products.

U.S. health officials said on Sept. 12 that there are 380 confirmed and probable cases of vaping-related breathing illnesses in 36 states and one territory.

Washington State Department of Health officials on Sept. 16 confirm two new cases of severe pulmonary disease linked to vaping.

The cases, identified by the Spokane Regional Health District, are both living in Spokane County, bringing the state’s total to three. The first reported case was a resident of King County.

“The symptoms of these patients match what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have asked all state and local health jurisdictions to be on the lookout for in regards to the nationwide investigation into this matter,” Washington State Health Officer Kathy Lofy said in a press release this week.

“This is now a state-wide outbreak,” she said.

Brian Smith, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board communication director/spokesman, said CDC and FDA officials are recommending that people not use vaping products as the investigation continues.

“We’re taking it very seriously,” Smith said last week.

All three confirmed cases reported vaping prior to illness but to date we have not identified a product, device or additive that are common to all three cases, Department of Health officials said. Investigations into the specifics of products, device and additives are ongoing.

Smith said the liquor and cannabis board officials recently met with Washington State Department of Health leaders, representatives with the governor’s office and industry officials, and plan to meet with leaders from other states early this week regarding the outbreak.

Smith said on Sept. 13 he anticipates state officials will soon issue a public health notice.

On its website, the state Department of Health department notes: “If you continue to use vaping devices, you should monitor yourself for symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath, chest pain) and promptly seek medical attention if you have concerns about your health. You should never buy vaping products with THC or other cannabinoids off the street, and you should not modify or add any substances to these products not intended by the manufacturer.”

Find newest information about state investigations into the illnesses at www.doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/SevereLungIllness.

National, regional issue

A number of severe lung illnesses and deaths across the nation related to electronic cigarettes moved marijuana retailers in Oregon to remove vaping products from their shelves last week.

The agency that regulates Oregon’s cannabis industry told the Associated Press (AP) on Sept. 11 it will soon ask retailers to voluntarily review their vaping offerings and pull those that spark concern.

The CDC said 80 percent of those with lung injuries report they use vaping liquids containing THC.

Several marijuana retailers on the North Olympic Peninsula say there isn’t cause for concern for those who purchase vaping products at licensed Washington stores.

“A lot of this is coming from the tobacco industry side,” John Sanders, a bud tender at Sea Change Cannabis in Discovery Bay, said last week.

“A lot of these cigarettes are (created with) Vitamin E oil. They’re selling them, quite frankly, out of the trunks of the cars,” he said.

Investigators in New York have focused on Vitamin E acetate, recently used as a thickener, particularly in black market vape cartridges, according to an Associated Press report.

Suppliers say the vitamin dilutes vape oils without making them look watery. Vitamin E is safe as a vitamin pill or to use on the skin but inhaling oily Vitamin E droplets can trigger pneumonia, the AP reported.

Smith said, however, that the Vitamin E information is a “red herring,” and that health officials are still in a fact-finding mode right now to isolate what’s causing the illness.

Washington state has strict procedures and testing that make marijuana products from licensed retailers safe, Sanders said. He said he heard from some concerned customers after hearing about the illnesses.

“Our state is protected that way,” Sanders said. “(Those products were) coming from illegal sources.”

Staff at Nature’s Gift in Sequim said products they sell are all plant-based, the store hasn’t had any issues from customers, and that they haven’t pulled any products from shelves.

A staffer at The Hidden Bush in Port Angeles said that the bad vaping products causing illnesses is “more of a black market thing.”

However, Smith noted, “the impact of this goes far beyond marijuana retail stores,” adding that Washington state has 4,000 businesses selling vape products.

“Some bootleg (products, but) there are vast amounts of regular vape; no one knows what’s in it,” Smith said.

A death in Oregon in July is the only one that public health authorities have linked to a purchase at a legal cannabis retailer, the AP reported last week.

Canadian concern

The serious lung illness affecting hundreds of people in the U.S. is also giving Canadian health officials pause, the AP reported, as Canada prepares to allow the sale of vaping products in its legal marijuana market.

No illnesses have yet been reported north of the border, but British Columbia’s top health official says it’s just a matter of time before symptoms are reported in Canada.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we will see cases pop up in Canada in the next few weeks now that we have started really looking for it,” Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer, told the Associated Press.

Canada last year became the second nation (Uruguay was first) to legalize and regulate marijuana, but legal sales of edible and vaping products are not due to begin until later this year.

“Most of these issues coming out of the U.S. are related to black market product and what black market producers are doing to cut corners,” said Megan McCrae, board chair of the Cannabis Council of Canada.

For the latest about the lung disease, see www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/e-cigarettes/severe-lung-disease.html.

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