With two suspected cases of vaping-related severe pulmonary disease in Brazos County, local health officials are encouraging those who use vapes or e-cigarettes to consider abstaining until more research can be done into the negative effects of the products.
“They have the reputation of being safe, and that evidence is showing that they’re just not as safe as we thought they were,” said Dr. Tiffany Skaggs, chief medical officer and family practice doctor at Texas A&M’s A.P. Beutel Student Health Center.
“We don’t have all the answers yet, but you’re potentially delivering very unsafe substances straight into your lungs, and you can’t live without your lungs.”
Officials are still investigating the two cases in Brazos County, but as of 5 p.m. Wednesday, there were 380 confirmed and probable cases of vape-related lung illness in 36 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Six deaths have been confirmed — in California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota and Oregon — the CDC website states.
Though the official cause of the two local cases has not been determined, Brazos County Health District Health Promotion Manager Sara Mendez said, “The signs seem to be very similar to what has been seen around the country with the use of e-cigarettes and vaping and things like that.”
E-cigarettes and vapes contain a liquid and use a battery and heater to create a vapor that is then inhaled. The “e-juice” can contain nicotine or THC, the chemical found in marijuana, and many times has a more pleasing flavor than traditional cigarettes.
“I think that’s one of the appeals to young adults and students. ... They have a vape that tastes like strawberry or mango and things like that and not realizing the effects that they’re having on inhaling those substances,” Mendez said.
The concern is doctors and health officials do not fully understand the dangers associated with e-cigarette use and vaping, Skaggs said.
“They’re trying to figure out why,” she said. “Why now? Why not before? Or was it happening before and we just weren’t alerted to it? And is it specific things?”
Of the 380 cases throughout the country in which people were admitted to the hospital due to vape-related lung illnesses, Skaggs said, some required supplemental oxygen, while others needed assisted ventilation or intubation in the ICU.
It has just been within the past month or so, Mendez said, that health officials recognized the link of e-cigarette use to patients throughout the country who were being hospitalized with severe lung illnesses.
Though the FDA does regulate the liquid used in the electronic cigarettes and vapes, Brazos County Health District Health Educator Mary Parrish said, it is possible people are purchasing and using liquids that contain banned substances.
“Highly toxic chemicals are banned; however, the issue is that with a lot of the e-juices that are made in China and sold at places like convenience stores, there’s no way of guaranteeing that they don’t have any of the banned chemicals,” Parrish said.
Both Bryan and College Station school districts have had incidents in the current school year, which began in August, related to e-cigarettes and vapes.
E-cigarettes, vapes, including component and accessories, are included on both districts’ list of prohibited items in the Student Codes of Conduct.
It can be difficult to spot vapes due to their small size and inconspicuous look, College Station school district spokesman Chuck Glenewinkel said.
“We try to deter by being proactive with announcements and campaigns that warn of the dangers of vaping,” he said.
In Bryan, district employees and school resource officers are trained to look for prohibited items on the campuses, according to district spokesperson Matthew LeBlanc. This includes, “not just keeping an eye out for the items, but also watching how a student acts and listening to what they’re saying,” he said.
According to the CDC, the symptoms of severe pulmonary disease reported by people throughout the country have included cough, shortness of breath or chest pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea and fatigue, fever or abdominal pain.
Some reported symptom development over a few days, while others reported development over a few weeks.
While those symptoms can be linked to other illnesses, Skaggs said, it is the severity and the quick progression that people who use vapes and e-cigarettes should look for.
Anyone who suspects they might be suffering from severe pulmonary disease should seek medical attention immediately. That case and information can then be included in the research being done throughout the country.