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Vape injury update: CDC confirms vitamin E acetate as ‘very strong culprit’

Published on November 8, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
On Nov. 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Aug. 30 Leafly findings of a new, toxic cutting agent in the illicit THC vape cart supply chain—vitamin E acetate. Above, a woman using a vaping device in Mayfield Heights, Ohio (Tony Dejak/AP)
Above, a woman using a vaping device in Mayfield Heights, Ohio (Tony Dejak/AP)

Our long national vaping injury nightmare might be turning a corner.

On Friday, Nov. 8, in a teleconference, the US Centers for Disease Control said it had its first suspect in the thousands of cases of vaping-associated pulmonary injury, which has killed 39.

CDC doctor Anne Schuchat said Friday that it has identified a “very strong culprit” hiding inside illicit market THC vaporizer cartridges. Investigators located vitamin E acetate—a new cutting agent in vape pens—in 29 of 29 lung fluid samples from patients in 10 states. Other toxins were “notably not detected,” Dr. Schuchat said. Leafly first identified the problem chemical on Aug. 30.

“For the first time, we have detected a potential toxin of concern, vitamin E acetate, from biological samples from patients,” said the principal deputy director of the CDC. The samples “provided evidence of vitamin E acetate at the primary site of injury in the lungs.”

The CDC had been searching since mid-August for what substance is causing a rash of lung injuries nationwide—dozens of mostly young men with acute respiratory distress syndromes and lung damage that looked like lipoid pneumonia, chemical pneumonitis, or organizing pneumonia. Many potentially unsafe materials can lurk in street THC carts, including pesticides, heavy metals, and solvents like butane.

In September, New York health authorities first spotted vitamin E acetate in samples from patients. The FDA started finding the chemical in victims’ THC oil samples thereafter. Since then, tests by Cannasafe and Anresco Labs in California have confirmed the chemical is contaminating most street THC cart supplies. Utah investigators found the chemical in most of the carts it could test from VAPI victims in that state.

Other contaminants lurking in vape pens can contribute to lung injury. “Many products and substances are still being investigated,” Schuchat said. Leafly tested the Dank Vapes and Rove carts of one Utah VAPI victim and found another vitamin E chemical, alpha-tocopherol, plus high levels of lead and sky-high levels of dozens of pesticides.

But vitamin E acetate is likely the main offender. Industrial chemical manufacturers warn against inhaling the substance, found in foot creams and children’s gummy vitamins. Manufacturers’ safety data sheets advise fresh air and medical help if exposed to tocopheryl-acetate aerosols.

According to Leafly reporting, in 2018 a vape industry supply wholesaler in Los Angeles began diverting the cosmetics ingredient into the US’ illicit vape cart supply chain, starting a massive new trend. Tocohperyl-acetate can now be found in 60% of the pens on the street, or about 50 million cartridges, industry operators estimate.

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David Downs
David Downs
Leafly Senior Editor David Downs is the former Cannabis Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. He's appeared on The Today Show, and written for Scientific American, The New York Times, WIRED, Rolling Stone, The Onion A/V Club, High Times, and many more outlets. He is a 2023 judge for The Emerald Cup, and has covered weed since 2009.
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