Is Vaping Responsible For An Outbreak Of Fatal Respiratory Illnesses?

Recent weeks have seen an escalation in lung illnesses around the country. A lethal case from Oregon has spurred research into the relation between vaping and lung disease.

Lethal Lung Illnesses

While hundreds of people have reported respiratory issues in recent weeks, Oregon health professionals are investigating what may be one of the first deaths related to vaping. Current details are limited, but the investigating health professionals confirm that it seems similar to an Illinois case, which also resulted in someone’s death after vaping. As inquiries into the exact cause of these serious lung illnesses continue, medical professionals warn against the continued use of vapes and e-cigarettes, especially among younger demographics. With the current lack of knowledge and massive popularity of vaping, cases like these may become more and more common.

A 2018 FDA report found that 3.6 million (1 in 5) middle and high school students admitted to vaping. From 2017-2018 the proportion of high schoolers vaping increased by 78% and middle school use rose by 48%. The FDA attributes this large growth to the design of popular vape pens. JUUL pens feature frequently in the media for their popularity. They’re slim, rectangular e-cigarettes with replaceable e-liquid cartridges which come in a variety of flavors. These flavors range from traditional tobacco and menthol, all the way to cotton candy and gummy bears.

What We Know About Vaping

For its explosive popularity, scientists admit to knowing worryingly little about the effects of vaping. In order to create vapor for inhalation, e-cigarettes need e-liquid, an oily substance heated within the vaping module. Researchers look to this first in order to assess the effects of vaping.

Almost all e-liquids contain a chemical called propylene glycol, which is known to cause both eye and lung irritation. The Dow Chemical Company advises against inhaling this substance in its safety assessment. Issues also seem to arise when the e-liquid interacts with the heating elements in the vaping module. Exposing propylene glycol to high heat can create carbonyl molecules, which make up toxic compounds like formaldehyde and acetone. Scientists aren’t sure if this byproduct is causing the recent issues or if it’s ultimately harmful at all, but they’re pursuing all possible leads.

Stepping back from the contents of the e-liquid, medical officials are also suspicious of the fine and ultra-fine particles which vaping can produce. The process of burning tobacco in traditional cigarettes also creates ultra-fine particles which contribute greatly to health risks in the lungs and heart. These particles can settle in the lungs and sit for long periods of time, possibly prolonging agitation depending on what molecules make it into the lungs. Researchers are still learning more and more about the effects unique to the vaping process, but arguably the most important chemical included in e-liquid is nicotine.


Many regard nicotine as one of the most chemically addictive substances in the world. Nicotine is so addictive that the industry surrounding cessation (quitting nicotine/smoking) will be worth over $21 billion by 2024. The fact that e-liquid contains nicotine is actually a selling point, because a major argument for allowing e-cigarettes was their supposed effectiveness as smoking cessation tools.

In adult populations, utilization of vapes and e-cigarettes has been shown to increase likelihood of smoking cessation. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true for the adolescent vaping population. The FDA notes that students who vape are more likely to “graduate” to tobacco products than their vape-less counterparts. Even if they don’t switch, medical officials worry that frequent e-cigarette use during adolescence can hook teenagers into a life-long nicotine addiction.

Another blind spot in the research around vaping is the effect nicotine has on an adolescent brain. Most studies sought to define the effects of nicotine in prenatal or adult brains. The current trend of teen vaping warrants a robust research effort to exhaust the possible risks. When considering the implications of these recent deaths, if they’re linked to vaping, the lack of knowledge becomes especially worrying.

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Michael Muldoon

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  • Michael Muldoon earned a B.A. in Media Studies from Penn State University, but instead of shifting into an academic career in social science, he has decided to put his skills to work in the pursuit of helping those struggling with addiction. He enjoys spending his free time at the climbing gym with friends.

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