This year, a spate of unusual lung injuries associated with e-cigarette use has swept across the United States and harmed over 2,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
E-cigarette use, or vaping, has been around for years, which is why public officials are troubled by the sudden and unexpected rise of lung damage and severe illness linked to vaping. One theory circulating the public is that the lung injuries are caused by using a specific type of product: cartridges containing THC.
According to the CDC, 86% of patients from a pool of 867 patients who knew the substances in their vaping products reported using THC-containing products in the 3 months before becoming ill.
Here, we break down how THC is connected to vaping-related lung injuries.
How Is THC Used in E-Cigarettes?
THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol. It’s the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and it causes the “high” marijuana users feel. THC can be extracted from the cannabis plant and turned into an oil, which can then be placed into a cartridge and smoked from an e-cigarette. The e-cigarette devices heat the THC oil and create a vapor that users inhale.
While there are marijuana dispensaries that create and sell legal THC-containing vaping products, marijuana use is still illegal in many states. A black market has emerged to produce counterfeit, illicit THC-containing products that are sold through street dealers, unlicensed dispensaries and websites.
Illicit THC-containing products are particularly dangerous for users, because the cartridges may contain unknown substances, some of which may be harmful or toxic upon inhalation. One added substance has drawn national attention in recent weeks: vitamin E acetate.
How Is THC Related to Vaping Illnesses?
The CDC has identified vitamin E acetate as a possible cause of vaping-related lung illnesses. It’s a form of vitamin E found in some foods, vitamin supplements and cosmetic skin products. It’s considered to be safe when ingested or applied to the skin topically. But because the chemical is very sticky, it’s dangerous to inhale. It can cling to the lungs and impair lung function.
Today, vitamin E acetate is used as an additive in illicit, black market vaping products that contain THC. The chemical resembles THC oil, and it’s added to THC-containing cartridges to dilute the amount of real THC in the solution. Vitamin E acetate is much cheaper to purchase, and because the thickness of the oil resembles that of THC oil, it’s difficult to detect when it’s mixed in with real THC.
Vitamin E acetate is most commonly found in black market, illicit THC-containing vaping products. The CDC warns e-cigarette users not to buy THC-containing products from informal sources, including family, friends, dealers, off the street or online from unknown providers.
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