As of Oct. 1, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed 18 vaping-related deaths across 15 states and 1,080 cases of vaping-related lung injuries across 48 states and one U.S. territory.
“No specific brand name, product, or source has been identified as the cause of illness at this time,” said Kelly Haight Connor, press assistant for NCDHHS, in an email.
But she said the NCDHHS is working with the CDC and other state and local health departments to investigate the products and devices patients used.
The prime suspect, according to the CDC’s website, is exposure to toxic chemicals in e-liquids.
All patients smoked e-cigarettes that contain various substances, the CDC said. While most patients have used e-cigarette products that contain THC — a marijuana plant chemical that creates euphoria — others have vaped products with THC and nicotine. Some also just reported vaping liquids containing nicotine.
The CDC also warned against buying vaping products “off the street” because they may include harmful substances. Many hospitalized patients reported using illicit, unregulated products, Haight Connor said.
“Since no product or device has been identified as the cause, NCDHHS encourages everyone to avoid any type of vaping product and e-cigarettes altogether,” she said.
Researchers and health officials also caution against vaping for another reason: No one yet knows vaping’s long-term health impact.
Past research and marketing have suggested that e-cigarette products are a healthier alternative to smoking and great for helping smokers quit. A study published in August by a group of UNC scientists, however, found that vaping may not be a safer alternative after all.
Scientists examined the lung fluids and airways of over 40 non-smokers, tobacco smokers, and e-cigarette users, which include former tobacco smokers and never-smokers. They found that e-cigarettes users’ lungs had abnormally high levels of protease enzymes, which have caused emphysema in traditional smokers.
That’s why it’s hard to understand how some researchers have concluded vaping is safer than tobacco smoking, said Dr. Arunava Ghosh, a research associate at the Marsico Lung Institute and the study’s lead author.
“That’s still debatable,” he said. “We’re not really at the position to determine whether the long-term vaping is going to affect the lung or not.”
It’s only been 10 or 15 years since e-cigarettes hit the markets, Ghosh said, and achieving a better understanding of the long-term health effects of vaping requires more time, samples and data.
“We should do something called a longitudinal study where we should recruit a vaper to give a sample," he said. "And we ask them to come back after six months or something, and then get another sample.”
That would allow researchers to conclude more definitively how chronic vaping will affect the lungs over time, he said.
Four scientists, including UNC professor Robert Tarran, published a review on Sept. 30 in the British Medical Journal that reviewed the evidence presented in all peer-reviewed studies about vaping’s effects on the lungs.
"We reiterate that, to date, no long term vaping toxicological/safety studies have been done in humans," they wrote. "Without these data, saying with certainty that e-cigarettes are safer than combustible cigarettes is impossible."