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Vaping Is Making People Really Sick — And No One Knows Why

'The safest thing to put into your lungs is just clean air'

By Lauren Rearick

A deadly lung illness with possible ties to vaping is sweeping the United States, and health experts cannot determine the cause.

As of September 12, 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that six people have died and 383 more are ill as a result of a mysterious disease believed to be connected to vaping, CNBC reported. With health experts unable to pinpoint an exact cause of the illness, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration have warned against continued usage of e-cigarettes and THC vaping products, and President Donald Trump is considering a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.

Vaporizers, or e-cigarettes, are commonly compared to traditional cigarettes, and while both are tobacco products, they have stark differences, according to Franziska Rosser, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “The cigarette is a tobacco product that causes harm and death,” she told MTV News. “Many things compared to cigarettes are less harmful. Being less harmful doesn’t make something safe.”

There’s evidence to suggest that Juul Labs, one of the premier e-cigarette companies, illegally marketed its products as less harmful than they actually are, alluding that they’re the healthier choice than traditional cigarettes. But medical professionals say vaping has plenty of health impacts of its own.

“[Vaporizers] are not just water vapor and steam,” Dr. Yolanda Evans of Seattle Children's Hospital told MTV News. “There are other substances in there that are used to help keep the product’s shelf life and help it become more of an aerosol to get into the body. Those things are not without consequences.”

Rosser added that the aerosol inside e-cigarettes are created by electronic nicotine delivery systems, or ENDS, which “have been found to contain dangerous chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOC), particle pollution, carcinogens, nicotine, and metals,” Rosser said. “E-liquids can contain substances that have been deemed generally safe to eat, but have not been deemed safe to breath. As a lung doctor, I can tell you that food in the lungs is harmful.”

From vape pens to hookah sticks, finding a different way to get a nicotine fix isn’t new — but the potential that some of these new methods are causing deaths and reports of lung damage is certainly something that should cause concern, Dr. Starla Martinez, director of the Robert T. Stone Respiratory Center at Akron Children’s Hospital and a pediatric pulmonologist, told MTV News. And with homemade vaping solutions popping up, it’s difficult to regulate what you’re actually putting in your lungs. What we do know, according to Martinez, is that “the recent tragic cases are probably related to vaping things that destroy the lungs, either quickly or slowly. But it’s too early to be able to say which substances are the worst.”

With research into the implications of vaporizing still pending and long-term consequences completely unknown,  it’s far too soon to say definitively what, if any, element contained in ENDS could be the cause of extreme illness or death. (In fact, early speculation put the potential blame on cartridges that have hit the black market.) But as these mysterious illnesses become increasingly common, it’s best to proceed cautiously. Until these products are fully understood, Martinez believes there’s only one course of action: “The thing we do know for sure is that the safest thing to put into your lungs is just clean air with no additives, preservatives, or flavorings.”