Health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed on Friday that vitamin E acetate, a substance found in some marijuana oil vaping products, is the primary link to a recent rash of a deadly lung illness — not nicotine as many consumers believe.
CDC principal deputy director Anne Schuchat called the finding a "breakthrough" in a mystery that has killed at least 39 people and sickened more than 2,000, though the CDC says that it hasn't ruled out the possibility of other substances playing a role in the illnesses, and that additional testing is needed.
Previously, health officials at the Food and Drug Administration and New York's health department suspected vitamin E acetate — which has been used as a cutting agent in black-market marijuana vaping products — was behind the illnesses. The FDA found vitamin E acetate in samples collected from patients across the country, while the NY health department found it in cannabis samples from patients who had fallen ill.
But the CDC's latest findings are the first time scientists have been able to match the results of product testing to lung fluid samples from patients, finding vitamin E acetate in all 29 samples of lung fluid collected from patients who had fallen ill or died from the illness. THC, or the psychoactive component of marijuana, was also found in 23 patients (including three who said they had not used THC products). Meanwhile, nicotine was detected in only 16 of 26 patients.
The specimens came from 29 patients in 10 states, including Michigan.
The findings come more than a month after a Metro Times cover story indicated vitamin E acetate was a major suspect behind the lung illnesses. The issue was clouded when leaders like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — along with other governors across the country, as well as President Donald Trump — called for bans on flavored nicotine vaping products like Juul, citing a rise in youth vaping. The two issues, which broke at around the same time, became conflated: A Morning Consult poll released in September found that 58 percent of Americans believed vaping nicotine has caused deaths from lung illnesses, while only 34 percent thought marijuana vaping was the cause.
After the outbreak, the Michigan Department of Health and Humans Services was slow to warn the public about the dangers of cannabis vaping, choosing instead to focus on flavored nicotine vaping. Last month, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive and chief deputy, admitted in a court hearing regarding a challenge to the state's flavored nicotine ban that she had not been following the CDC's research on the link between marijuana products and the lung illness.
Though vitamin E has primarily been found in black-market marijuana products, an Oregon man said he bought his THC cartridges from legal dispensaries. And while Michigan's licensed marijuana provisioning centers are required to test their products, they are not required to test for the presence of vitamin E acetate.
The CDC recommends that people avoid vaping all products containing THC, "especially those obtained from informal sources such as friends or family, or those from the illicit market, where product ingredients are unknown or can be highly variable," according to its report. Meanwhile, Michigan's health department is advising people to avoid both marijuana and nicotine vaping products.
As of Oct. 25, Michigan had 44 confirmed and probable cases of the lung illness, and one death reported, according to a recent report from MDHHS.
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