US federal health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified a substance which they believe may have caused lung injuries in over 2,000 people and killed at least 39, The Washington Post reported Friday.
The study, which examined lung fluid from 29 patients who either fell ill or died after vaping, discovered that every specimen contained vitamin E acetate – an oil derived from the vitamin.
Vitamin E acetate is not known to cause harm to humans when applied to the skin or swallowed, and is often used in cosmetics, according to Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the CDC.
However, when inhaled in a vaporized state, it can interfere with the normal function of the lung.
The oil’s boiling point is 183 degrees Celsius, significantly higher than that of water, and, in a vaporized state, the substance is unstable and prone to decomposition, which means a user would be “breathing in who-knows-what,” according to Professor Michelle Francl of Bryn Mawr College.
The oil was found in all 29 samples, the Post reported. In 23 cases of those 29, THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana was also found, including in three patients who pledged that they had not used products containing the compound.
According to the CDC, vitamin E acetate is often used in the marijuana black market to dilute THC oil as it has no colour, odor and is of the same viscosity as THC.
The CDC tested lung fluids for a wide range of toxins, including plant oils and petroleum distillates, but “no other potential toxins were detected,” Schuchat told the Post.
While officials call their discovery a “breakthrough,” they say additional testing is required on patients who have not developed negative symptoms from vaping, to prove that vitamin E acetate is the real culprit. They say testing on animals is also needed to understand how the oil might cause disease to develop.
Until deeper research is completed, health officials strongly warn against vaping THC-containing products, especially those bought off the street, and generally recommend to refrain from using vapes and electronic cigarettes – at least until the real culprit behind the deaths is 100 percent proven, the report said.