Breakthrough in CDC Vaping Illness Case: Vitamin E Acetate Major Culprit

Published on November 11, 2019

On Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hit a major breakthrough in the nationwide vaping illness investigation that has infected over 2,000 people throughout the U.S. and led to the death of at least 39 people. Federal health officials are attributing both black market THC products and an e-cigarette agent known as “vitamin E acetate” as the major culprits in the vaping illness epidemic.

#1—Unregulated and Informal Sources

According to the latest update from the CDC, products containing THC, that are distributed from “informal sources” including, but not limited to friends, family, or online dealers are linked to most of the cases, playing a major role in the outbreak.

In simpler terms, if you’re not obtaining your THC products from a licensed dispensary or provider, there is a very high risk for contamination.

Internationally, some countries such as India have even banned vaping and e-cigarettes because of the epidemic.

#2—Vitamin E…..Acetate

The second finding from the CDC also revealed that an e-cigarette cutting agent, vitamin E acetate, has been illegally used and injected into unregulated, illegal vaping products to dilute THC oil in order to maximize profits—and risk the health and safety of customers.

The chemical is used as an additive or thickening agent in some vaping products, has turned up in every sample of lung fluid collected from 29 patients with vaping-related illnesses, according to the CDC. But, vitamin E acetate is also used in supplements and skin creams and does not seem to cause harm when swallowed or used topically.

These new findings are significant because for the first time, we have detected a potential toxin of concern — vitamin E acetate — in biologic samples,said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC. But, she added, “there’s more work to do.

During the press briefing, CDC’s Dr. James Pirkle described vitamin E acetate as “enormously sticky” when it goes into the lungs, and it “does hang around.” Pirkle said it wouldn’t be unusual for THC to be absent from some of the samples because it leaves the lungs faster. He added finding THC in 82% of the samples from 28 patients was “noteworthy.”

While vitamin E acetate is believed to be a “very strong culprit,” according to the CDC, officials have emphasized that there could be other causes involved as well.

The latest samples were collected through a process in which fluid is pushed into the lungs and then collected for analysis. The lab results revealed THC in 23 of 28 patient samples, including those from three patients who said they hadn’t vaped THC products. The CDC indicated the lack of THC in five of those samples does not definitively indicate the patients didn’t use the drug, because THC can be difficult to detect in samples taken from lungs.

While most of the illnesses have been linked to illicit THC vapes, the agency can’t rule out any ‘infiltration’ of tainted products into state-licensed marijuana dispensaries,” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC.

Take Oregon for example. At least one death was reportedly linked to oil bought legally at a dispensary in the state, which only goes to show there are still many unknown factors when it comes to vaping and the ingredients inside these oils. It’s not a black-and-white issue here.

Consequently, marijuana advocates are calling for clear federal rules with respect to cannabis, and you know what? This doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. 

But what would that look like?

#1—Using the FDA to Remove Suspect Products From Shelves

Research and regulation, while extremely important, is not the first step here. It’s to remove the potential harm from public access. While some states are attempting to address this very serious epidemic in its own way, the power of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) seems more appropriate here in expediting the removal of these tainted or suspect products from shelves.

#2—Education, Education, Education

The next step is to use the combined power and authority of both federal and state agencies. Educating the public about this is of utmost importance, referring to the guidance of the FDA, CDC, and state agencies can help ensure the safety of the general public.

If one thing is clear, it’s that the government certainly needs to take “appropriate” action, whether that involves better oversight of state laws, or stepping in to regulate cannabis at the federal level.

Currently, marijuana is illegal at the federal level, labeled as a Schedule I controlled substance, which has the same legal classification as heroin and LSD. Unfortunately, because of the federal classification, this leaves states and companies to fend for themselves in creating their own regulation for their own marketplaces. Because states schedule their own regulatory measures for their dispensaries, it makes it difficult for federal government agencies to document and test these products.

Currently, 11 states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 33 that allow medical marijuana.

The data so far point to a much greater risk associated with THC-containing products from informal sources than licensed dispensaries,” Schuchat said, but added, “I don’t think we know enough yet to completely take dispensaries out of the question.

Right now, health officials are warning the general public to avoid vaping and in particular, to avoid any products that contain THC or that were purchased from sources other than licensed dispensaries.

Andrew "Drew" Rossow is a former contract editor at Grit Daily.

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