Investigators at the US Food and Drug Administration found an oil derived from vitamin E in cannabis products in samples collected from patients who mysteriously fell ill to lung disease across the United States. FDA officials shared that information with state health officials during a telephone briefing this week, several officials who took part in the call told the Washington Post.
That same chemical was also found in nearly all cannabis samples from patients who fell ill in New York in recent weeks, a state health department spokeswoman said.
Health officials said it is too early to know whether this is causing the injuries, noting that the oil is the first common element found in samples from across the country.
“We knew from earlier testing by New York that they had found vitamin E acetate, but to have FDA talk about it from their overall testing plan, that was the most remarkable thing that we heard,” one official who listened to the briefing but was not authorized to speak publicly, told the Post.
An FDA spokesman said the agency is “looking into potential leads regarding any particular constituent or compound that may be at issue.” The FDA is analyzing samples for a broad range of chemicals, including nicotine, THC, other cannabinoids, “cutting agents” that may be used to dilute liquids, other additives, pesticides, opioids, poisons and toxins.
“The number of samples received continues to increase and we now have over 100 samples for testing,” FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum said Thursday.
The FDA also told state officials Wednesday that its lab tests found nothing unusual in nicotine products that had been collected from sick patients, another person who took part in the call said.
Vitamin E is found naturally in foods like canola oil, olive oil and almonds. The oil derived from the vitamin, known as vitamin E acetate, is commonly available as a nutritional supplement and is used in topical skin treatments as a vitamin supplement. Its oil-like properties, however, can be dangerous when inhaled, and could be associated with the kinds of respiratory symptoms that many patients have reported: cough, shortness of breath and chest pain, officials said.
Laura Crotty Alexander, lung inflammation and e-cigarette researcher at the University of California in San Diego School of Medicine, said it’s not clear whether the chemical itself or its byproducts could be toxic.
“We haven’t looked at the toxicity of vitamin E in the lungs,” she said. “The lungs are designed to exchange gas molecules; they’re not designed to be exposed to other chemicals.”
When the lung cells die, that often provokes an inflammatory response, and “other cells need to come in and clean up the cell debris,” Alexander said, adding that extra cells – like vitamin E cells – could “get in the way of gas exchange,” making it more difficult for oxygen to get into a person’s bloodstream. The inflammation can cause the liquid to accumulate in the lungs, making it difficult for someone to breathe, she said.