Official word has come down from federal authorities on one potential cause of the mystery illness affecting vape users: Vitamin E acetate, a chemical found in some vaping products that has been demonstrated to linger in the lungs long afterwards. The finding has been called a "breakthrough" but is far from the last word on the situation.
Sadly, the condition has already claimed the lives of at least 39 people, and more than 2,000 cases have been reported collectively from every state but Alaska. At present the only advice offered has been to stop vaping altogether.
In a media teleconference, the heads of the investigation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained the basis for pointing the finger at Vitamin E acetate. The substance was cited as a possible problem early on but only recent testing has established it as a bona fide suspect, the team explained.
Samples taken from the lungs of 29 victims of the condition were sent in from 10 different states, and vitamin E acetate was found in all of them. "These findings provide direct evidence of vitamin E acetate as the primary site of injury within the lungs," said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC.
Although she agreed that this evidence is a "breakthrough," she noted that it is at present merely a correlative finding — more research is required to establish causation, namely the mechanism of harm, though other work has been done in that area.
"Previous non-CDC research suggests that when vitamin E acetate is inhaled, it may interfere with normal lung function," she said.
"It's important to note that these findings do not rule out other possible compounds or ingredients that may be causing these lung injuries," she continued. "There may be more than one cause of the outbreak."
Equally important are the statistics involved with the sources of the substances in question. As mentioned earlier in the investigation, a huge proportion of those suffering from this condition were using THC products, and specifically ones acquired through unregulated channels like street dealers.
The vitamin E acetate may have been added for the purpose of essentially cutting the product, Schuchat mentioned in response to a question on the call.
"That may be done for the illicit purpose, or the profit purpose, of diluting the materials, making it look nice and perhaps not having to use as much THC or other active ingredients," she said.
Other potentially dangerous chemicals have been identified in vape products when heated and aerosolized, including many that even the creators might not have predicted.
Knowing a potential culprit doesn't get at the heart of the problem, which would be that this chemical (perhaps among others) has already built up over months or years in the lungs of frequent vape users. Treatment is a parallel line of research, but knowing at least one substance responsible should be helpful.
The CDC's previous advice still stands, the officials noted: They advise avoiding vaping altogether, as there are very few controls at present over which ingredients are allowed in vape products, and what must be declared on the packaging, or indeed whether those declarations are in any way accurate.