Search Narrows for Potentially Deadly Vaping Component

Vitamin E Found in Samples Around the Country

State and federal health officials investigating mysterious lung illnesses linked to vaping have found the same chemical in samples of marijuana products used by people sickened in different parts of the country and who used different brands of products in recent weeks.

The chemical is an oil derived from vitamin E. Investigators at the FDA found the oil in cannabis products in samples collected from patients who fell ill across the United States. That same chemical was also found in nearly all cannabis samples from patients who fell ill in New York in recent weeks.

While this is the first common element found in samples from across the country, health officials said it is too early to know whether this is causing the injuries.

Vitamin E is found naturally in certain foods, such as canola oil, olive oil and almonds. The oil derived from the vitamin, vitamin E acetate, is available as a nutritional supplement and is used in topical treatments. It is not known to cause harm when ingested as a vitamin supplement or applied to the skin. However, its molecular structure could make it hazardous when inhaled. Its oil-like properties could be associated with the kinds of respiratory symptoms that many patients have reported: cough, shortness of breath and chest pain, officials said.

Vitamin E acetate is basically grease, said Michelle Francl, a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College. Its molecular structure means that “you have to heat it up pretty hot” for it to vaporize. Its boiling point is 363 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the oil is heated hot enough to vaporize, it can potentially decompose, and “now you’re breathing in who-knows-what,” Francl said. When that vapor cools down in the lungs, it returns to its original state, she said, which means “it has now coated the inside of your lungs with that oil.”

Unlike the human digestive tract, which can break down and get rid of foreign substances, the lungs aren’t designed to handle anything except gases.

Although the discovery of a common chemical offers a potential lead, officials cautioned that they are a long way from understanding what exactly is making so many people sick.

An FDA spokesman said the agency is “looking into potential leads regarding any particular constituent or compound that may be at issue.” The FDA is analyzing samples for a broad range of chemicals, including nicotine, THC, other cannabinoids, and “cutting agents” that may be used to dilute liquids.

“[W]e now have over 100 samples for testing,” FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum said Thursday. “No one substance, including Vitamin E acetate, has been identified in all of the samples tested," he added. “Importantly, identifying any compounds that are present in the samples will be one piece of the puzzle but will not necessarily answer questions about causality.”

Source: Washington Post, Sept. 6