Vaping-Related Illnesses Climb As Federal Officials Reveal Criminal Investigation

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People across the country continue to fall ill with mysterious lung diseases tied to vaping, and federal officials have revealed that they've opened a criminal investigation to search for the cause. 

The number of confirmed or probable cases has reached 530 across 38 states and one territory, according to the latest update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's up from 380 patients reported last week. A confirmed or probable case is one that meets the CDC's current case definition, or the specific criteria officials use to classify a vaping-related illness. 

Seven people have reportedly died from these illnesses, which have struck men at a higher rate; about 75% of the patients are male. No one cause or set of causes has been linked to all of the cases, the CDC reported. 

The investigation continues at both the state and federal level. Today, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that its Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI) has been working in parallel to investigate the supply chain and identify what is making people sick.

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"In cases like this, we typically turn to [the] OCI," said Mitch Zeller, the director of the Center for Tobacco Products at the FDA. "They have special investigative skills, and there are leads to track down." However, the OCI is not pursuing any prosecution for personal use of any of these substances, he said. 

Previously, the FDA found that many of the products used by the patients contained a contaminant commonly found in THC vaping products called vitamin E acetate. "We are seeing vitamin E acetate in some samples, but our laboratory analysis continues to show a mix of results," he said. "There's no one compound ingredient constituent including vitamin E acetate that is showing up in all of the samples." 

Many of the patients reported using numerous vaping products and substances, including a mix of nicotine and THC.

The FDA has collected over 150 vaping product samples for analysis. The agency is searching for a variety of constituents — THC and other cannabinoids, opioids, cutting agents, pesticides, poisons, toxins and additives — to see if any have a link with the illnesses.

"Identifying any compounds present in the samples is the one piece of the puzzle and will not necessarily answer questions about causality," he said. "We are leaving no stone unturned."

The CDC has been recommending that people who are concerned about these health risks steer clear of e-cigarettes or vaping products, and no one should be buying them off the street or modifying them in any way. Regardless of the investigation, youths, young adults, pregnant women and adults who don't currently use tobacco products should not use them, Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the CDC, said during the briefing. 

But if you're an adult who's using nicotine-containing e-cigarettes, you should not revert back to smoking cigarettes;  rather you should contact a health care provider who can discuss possible treatments, she said. What's more, "if you recently used an e-cigarette or vaping product and you have symptoms like those reported in this outbreak, we recommend you see a health care provider as soon as possible." Those symptoms include cough, shortness of breath and chest pain. Some patients also reported having nausea, vomiting, diarrea, fatigue, fever or abdominal pain.

"People are dying," she said. "We ask you to take these recommendations seriously."

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.