More clues point to chemical compound in U.S. vaping illnesses

A jar containing a chemical with a label
A vitamin E acetate sample during a tour of the Medical Marijuana Laboratory of Organic and Analytical Chemistry at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, N.Y., on Nov. 4, 2019. On Tuesday, investigators in Minnesota said they looked at vaping cartridges gathered before and during the current outbreak. None of the cartridges collected last year had vitamin E acetate, but nearly all of the recent cartridges did.
Hans Pennink | AP Photo file

Updated: 4:45 p.m.

Vitamin E acetate, which has been linked to vaping-related lung injuries, appears to have recently entered the illicit marijuana marketplace as an additive in cannabis oil products, a new study indicates.

The report released Tuesday by the federal Centers for Disease Control relied on data from the Minnesota Health Department. CDC testing found vitamin E acetate in the lung fluid of patients who fell ill after vaping.

Minnesota health officials tested marijuana vaping cartridges from 2018 and 2019. None of the products seized in 2018 tested positive for vitamin E acetate, but all the 2019 products containing THC — the high-producing compound in cannabis — contained the chemical.

The finding adds to evidence tying vitamin E acetate to the rash of vaping-related lung injuries that have hospitalized or killed thousands of people nationwide. However, health officials say more research is necessary to establish if vitamin E acetate caused the injuries and how.

As of Tuesday, the Minnesota Health Department knew of 125 patients in the state with confirmed or probable lung injuries. Three patients have died. Ninety-one percent of those the department had interviewed reported vaping black market products containing THC.

Cases of vaping lung injuries are continuing to appear in the Minnesota, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield. Most patients have vaped intensely, she said, but the exact causes of the injuries are unclear.

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She said health officials don’t know how long it takes for illness symptoms to appear because investigators ask patients whether they’ve vaped in the past three months— a “wide window” of time.

However, Lynfield said an individual’s sensitivity to the vaping product, the intensity of their exposure and other conditions likely factor into who gets sick and who doesn’t.

Vitamin E known in cannabis community for years

Vitamin E acetate is considered a safe ingredient for skin-care products and dietary supplements. But there’s very little research on what it does to the lungs when heated and inhaled in vaping. However, early signs indicate it’s unsafe.

The ingredient appeared in a vaping product as early as 2015, according to Leafly, a cannabis news outlet. It began proliferating as an additive to cannabis vaping products in 2018.

However, as national media and health officials began reporting on severe lung injuries relating to vitamin E, Leafly reported that companies selling vitamin E vaping additives began closing or pulling those products.

However, a market in counterfeit vaping cartridges has continued to operate, even after online retailer Amazon pulled materials for making them from its website in September.