PEF scientists at the forefront of vaping-associated lung illness investigation
By KATE MOSTACCIO
Severe pulmonary disease among patients who reported recent use of vape products continues to rise, with 146 patients reported statewide as of October 22, according to the state Department of Health (DOH) website.
Nine PEF scientists in the medical marijuana lab at DOH’s Wadsworth Center have all been hard at work to discover what is causing the pulmonary illness. Their experience and skills working to ensure the quality of medical marijuana has them well positioned to take on the task.
“We routinely analyze samples for the Medical Marijuana Program,” said 35-year PEF member David Spink, a research scientist 5 and chief of the Laboratory of Organic Analytical Chemistry at Wadsworth. “We use many of the same tests and techniques to analyze the black market products that are associated with these cases.”
Black market vaping products are looking to be a likely culprit behind the pulmonary illnesses, he said.
“They appear to be black market vaporizer cartridges containing cannabis oil and other additives,” Spink said of the samples linked to affected patients. “Although no one specific cause of these illnesses has been identified, there is a strong association with additives that are used to dilute or cut the oil in these illegal pens. We’ve been working very hard on characterizing those.”
“Our lab was the first to report the vitamin E acetate in the vapor oils that might be contributing to the problem,” Spink said.
Spink explained that vitamin E acetate is a heavy oil, a pro-vitamin, that is often used in health care products. And, while the vitamin in the name might make it seem harmless, it’s dependent on its form and how it is applied or consumed. “It’s not recommended for vaping or inhaling,” Spink said.
Wadsworth receives samples associated with pulmonary illness cases primarily from Poison Control Centers or from hospitals. “We only need a small amount,” Spink said. “If you were to dab it on the head of a pin that would be enough for us to do most of our analysis.”
Even if a vape cartridge seems empty, there is a good chance that Wadsworth scientists can extract something to test.
“It’s a very sticky oil,” Spink said. “We take the mouth piece off and put the whole cartridge into a centrifuge tube.” A centrifuge can spin the cartridge at high speed, creating enough force to eject the oil into the centrifuge tube.
So far, Wadsworth has received approximately 200 samples. “Some have been empty, and we can’t do anything with them,” Spink said. “But we’ve analyzed 170 samples from 41 different NYS cases of this vaping-associated pulmonary illness.”
In addition to the medical marijuana quality testing, PEF scientists at Wadsworth’s organic analytical labs generally perform environmental chemistry related to issues such as water quality and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) testing. This vaping health crisis has again thrust them into the spotlight.
“It’s very interesting,” Spink said. “And, a little more stressful. Because we had the medical marijuana program set up, we had the expertise to handle this problem in the laboratory. Our group has done an excellent job. They’ve done outstanding work and have worked very hard on this problem.”
In New York, the cases of vaping-associated pulmonary illness have hit patients ranging from 14 to 69 years old, and it is hard to pinpoint which products are to blame.
Since a wide range of brand names and packaging descriptions have been reported and testing at Wadsworth Center has revealed that products with identical packaging often have different chemical compounds, New Yorkers are advised to refrain from vaping any products as a precaution.
There is no question the illness is severe. An overwhelming majority (96%) of patients in New York have ultimately required hospitalizations, according to the DOH. At least five patients have required intubation and there has been one death in New York attributed to vaping.
DOH press releases advise New Yorkers to stop using the products and further urge those who switched to vaping in place of smoking combustible cigarettes to refrain from returning to the latter habit.
“Neither smoking nor vaping is safe,” the advisory stated. “E-cigarettes are not safe for youth, pregnant women, or adults who do not currently use tobacco products. … [R]obust and ongoing evidence-based studies of these products has identified numerous risks and harms from both the nicotine-laced e-liquids and the devices themselves.”
Spink’s advice to vape users? Stop vaping.
“Certainly you shouldn’t use any of these black market products” he said. “But it’s best that you don’t vape at all until the reason for the pulmonary illness is determined.”
For more information about the outbreak of vaping-associated illnesses, visit: https://www.health.ny.gov/prevention/tobacco_control/campaign/e-cigarettes/.
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