Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cases Of Serious Lung Illnesses Due To Vaping Grow Dramatically


It was a bad week for the e-cigarette and vaping industry. Excuse me, I guess I'm clearing my throat. Friday, Walmart announced it would stop selling e-cigarettes and vaping products. States have already started to impose bans, and the Food and Drug Administration has threatened to do the same. Meanwhile, the reported number of serious lung illnesses related to vaping grew dramatically this week, topping 530. A Missouri man became the eighth person to die in the current outbreak.

NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey has been following all this. Allison, thanks for coming in today.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there. Thanks very much.

SIMON: And let's begin with the outbreak of illnesses.

AUBREY: Sure. Well, investigators have some clues about what's going on, but so far, there's not one substance or compound that is linked to all the illnesses. Most people who've gotten sick have acknowledged vaping THC. That's the psychoactive component in cannabis. Some have vaped a combination of THC and nicotine. And some of those who've ended up in the hospital have actually handed over the products they vaped. Investigators are testing these for contaminants - so pesticides, toxins - trying to find something that might help explain these sicknesses. They say they're really just desperate for more information to figure this out.

SIMON: And at the same time vaping has become so popular - high school students, college-age young adults - now the CDC and FDA are telling people just to stop vaping. Are - is there evidence at the moment that people who are most at risk are hearing those warnings and heeding them?

AUBREY: Well, you know, we know that of those who've ended up in the hospital, many are young - otherwise healthy young men. Some are high schoolers, you know, under the age of 18. And whether the news about these deaths and illnesses has scared them, I guess, isn't entirely clear. But anecdotally, there are reports of teens and college-age students being freaked out by the news, as they should be.

In my own community, I have two teenage sons. I know there's been a lot of talk about just how dangerous vaping can be, especially buying cartridges from a pop-up shop or, quote, "from a friend" when you really just have no idea what's in it.

SIMON: What are the symptoms that send people to the hospital and has permanent damage?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, the sicknesses can be deceiving because it can look like the flu. People come in with fever, chills, coughing. Many patients have had quite a bit of nausea, shortness of breath. And many have been diagnosed with lipoid pneumonia. Now, this is a condition that is normally seen in very elderly, sick people. And doctors say they really just don't know if there will be any long-term health consequences for these people who've gotten so sick.

SIMON: Allison, you mentioned most of the people who have gotten sick have vaped THC. That's a component in marijuana.

AUBREY: That's right.

SIMON: There is a federal ban on this.

AUBREY: Well, you know, the FDA is enlisting investigators in its criminal division to look into this. And officials stressed on Thursday in a press conference that, look; investigators are not looking to prosecute people who are using these substances. They just want to collect more evidence, like the vaping cartridges people have used who've gotten so sick, to try to figure out - you know, track down the source of the outbreak.

I should point out that there was an arrest in Wisconsin a little over a week ago. Two brothers were operating a business. They were filling empty vaping cartridges with THC liquid distributed by illicit means and then selling them to high school students. You know, it's not known if these were connected to the illnesses, but the size of the operation really does show that there is a big black market out there for these devices, and we just don't know what people are putting into them.

SIMON: Walmart, huge retailer not selling vaping products. To put you on the spot a bit, is this the beginning of the end of vaping products?

AUBREY: Well, I'd say it's hard to say, but it is certainly clear that we are headed into a period of much, much tighter regulations because there are serious concerns about the health risks.

SIMON: Allison Aubrey, thanks so much for being with us.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.