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CDC Says THC Additive Is The Culprit In Most Vaping Deaths


Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are closing in on the cause of lung injuries and deaths among people who vape. They're doing that by taking a new look at information gathered by a system set up to help detect biological weapon attacks.

NPR science correspondent Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: These latest observations come from a system that collects 100 million reports from emergency rooms coast to coast every year. Kathleen Hartnett, an epidemiologist at the CDC, says it's called the National Syndromic Surveillance Program.

KATHLEEN HARTNETT: And the national strategy to monitor the health of Americans in real time originally started as a way to detect bioterror after the attacks of September 11 and subsequent anthrax attacks.

HARRIS: Public health officials use it for all sorts of investigations as well. So Hartnett said it was only natural to dive into it to understand the pattern of vaping lung injuries, which to date have sent more than 2,500 people to the hospital and killed 54.

HARTNETT: They knew that a lot of patients with these conditions were coming in through emergency departments and that they might be able to find some of those patients by looking at this data.

HARRIS: Investigators looking back on that data found that starting in January of 2017, there was a gradual increase in emergency room visits by people who vape.

HARTNETT: And those visits weren't limited to lung injuries, so there may be other health effects that people were experiencing, related things - potentially nicotine poisoning or acute intoxication from THC.

HARRIS: THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Then in June of this year, that slow trend changed abruptly, Hartnett says.

HARTNETT: We know that there have been sporadic cases of these injuries that were reported before June of 2019, but the very sharp increase at the beginning of the summer shows the beginning of this outbreak.

HARRIS: Hartnett is first author of a report published in The New England Journal of Medicine. This abrupt uptick of cases strongly suggest that there was also an abrupt change in vaping products. Investigators have singled out an additive in illicit products containing THC, vitamin E acetate.

Anne Schuchat, a top official at the CDC says that case is even stronger now.

ANNE SCHUCHAT: The outbreak, this big increase, is largely explained by the vitamin E acetate phenomenon, but that doesn't mean that there are not other chemicals or substances in e-cigarettes or vaping products that can or are causing lung injury.

HARRIS: So while law enforcement agencies are going after illicit vape makers who used vitamin E acetate, the CDC continues to be on the lookout for other dangerous substances in these products. Richard Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "EUCALYPTUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

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