As Lung Damage Cases Mount, Spotlight On Safety Of Vaping

Aug 23, 2019

About 150 cases of severe lung damage are under investigation in 16 states. A possible cause? Vaping.  Teens and young adults have been the principal victims of these injuries that were first reported in Wisconsin. WUWM intern Louna Lepoivre looks into vaping health concerns.

On a sunny and warm Friday afternoon on Brady Street on Milwaukee’s East side, people are hanging out with friends, eating, drinking and vaping. In you are unfamiliar, vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling vapor produced by an electronic cigarette. E-cigarettes do not produce tobacco smoke, but rather an aerosol that consists of fine particles.

READ: Wisconsin Lawmaker Proposes Raising Legal Age To Purchase Tobacco Products

So why do people do it? Some start vaping as a way to quit smoking cigarettes. Though the Food and Drug Administration does not allow for e-cigarettes or vaping products to be sold as a way to quit smoking cigarettes, many have that perception.

Still, some who vape do have concerns about the product. Patrick Vitrano has been vaping for four years. He vapes every day and considers it as a bad habit.   

"It is not something I am proud of," he says. "I think most people that use vaporizers they know going into it that is not a healthy thing."

As of August 22, 2019, there have been 16 confirmed cases of severe lung disease in Wisconsin. And 15 more cases are under investigation, mostly among adolescents. Across the country, there are about 150 possible cases in states from Minnesota to California.

READ: What's Behind A Cluster Of Vaping-Related Hospitalizations?

Dr. Doug Jorenby, director of clinical services for the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Tobacco Research, believes vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes, but he wouldn’t call vaping a safe alternative. 

Jorenby says there is a specific risk caused by one component of vape juice: propylene glycol. When heated to high temperatures, he says, it can cause damage — a syndrome referred as popcorn lung. 

READ: Irritating Compounds Can Show Up In 'Vape Juice'

Still Jorenby says, across the world, the verdict is out on whether even medical institutions consider vaping to be safe: "We have an international organization like the WHO coming out and saying this is undoubtedly harmful. And at the same time, an organization like the National Health Service in the U.K., which has a lot of experience in treating and preventing illness, they are saying and acting on giving people e-cigarettes as a way to help them get out of compostable tobacco. In the U.S., we have kind of walked the middle ground."

However, Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, says e-cigarettes are not dangerous. Furthermore, he says that they are a good way to quit smoking. When asked about people who are believed to have vaping-related injuries, Conley wonders if something else is going on — a black market.

"So, when the word vaping gets thrown around most people associate it to nicotine vaping but in fact there is nothing that advocates or proponents or people in the nicotine vaping products industry can do to stop black marketers from filling cartridges with THC or spice or synthetic cannabinoids," he says.

In Illinois, the State's Attorney of Lake County is suing the vaping company JUUL over targeting teens and accuse the company of causing a public health crisis. The Wisconsin Department of Justice won't confirm or deny the existence of an investigation into teen vaping or potential litigation.