As Vaping-Related Lung Illnesses Continue, the Culprit Remains a Mystery

In our weekly news roundup: investigating the cause of vaping-related lung illness, protesting for action on climate change, and more.

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  • As of this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting 530 cases of vaping-related lung illness, along with seven deaths.

    Visual: Martina Paraninfi/Getty

Young people across the United States are continuing to fall ill with vaping-related lung disease as federal investigators struggle to identify the cause. In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they have recorded 530 probable and confirmed cases, along with seven deaths. Canada also reported its first case this week, after a teenager in Ontario was put on life support following use of an e-cigarette device.

In many of the recorded cases, the patients — mainly men under the age of 25 — have experienced chest pain, shortness of breath, and coughing, among other symptoms. But officials have not been able to pin down a single substance, ingredient, or brand that could be responsible. And while most patients have reported vaping tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, others say they only vaped nicotine or a combination of the two.

“I’d like to stress how challenging this situation is, as patients may have been exposed to a variety of products and substances, may not know the contents or sources of these products, and in some instances, may be reluctant or too ill to disclose all the details of interest,” Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, told reporters in Thursday’s call.

Earlier this month, health officials reported that an oil derived from vitamin E could be the culprit — with some physicians diagnosing patients with lipoid pneumonia, which occurs when fat particles enter the lungs. Others say the symptoms don’t match that diagnosis, instead favoring the designation of a new disease altogether. In any case, CDC officials point out, the vitamin E derivative has not been found in all of the samples tested.

The health agency is urging people to stop the use of e-cigarettes while its investigation is ongoing. As vaping among teenagers has increased in recent years, the Trump administration is moving to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes said to be marketed towards them.

Lawmakers in India went a step further on Wednesday, banning e-cigarettes altogether. The country’s finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, cited the “seriousness of the impact of e-cigarettes on the youth,” as the reason behind the decision.

Also in the news:

• Today marks the beginning of a global climate strike — a promise made by millions of people around the globe to walk out of schools, homes, and workplaces in protest of fossil fuels. “Our house is on fire — let’s act like it,” the project’s website states. The strike, scheduled to run through September 27, is the latest in a buildup of events initiated by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who famously began protesting outside her country’s parliament in August 2018. The strike also overlaps with a joint journalism initiative from The Nation magazine and Columbia Journalism Review. With a list of over 250 partners, including international outlets, institutions, and independent journalists, Covering Climate Now aims to reach an audience of more than 1 billion people from September 15 to 23. During this time, media partners are encouraged to participate in content sharing across outlets to help maximize climate crisis awareness leading up to the United Nations Climate Summit in New York. (Multiple Sources)

• President Trump announced on Wednesday that his administration is ending California’s right to set its own auto emission standards, which are currently stricter than those set by the federal government. The president made his announcement in a tweet, stating “The Trump Administration is revoking California’s Federal Waiver on emissions,” predicting the change would lead to safer, less expensive cars. California, which in 1966 became the first state in the country to regulate tailpipe emissions, viewed the move differently. California Gov. Gavin Newsom described it as a “political vendetta” and immediately promised to challenge it in court. “It’s a move that could have devastating consequences for our kids’ health and the air we breathe if California were to roll over,” he added. The Trump administration’s announcement followed news last month that California had been negotiating privately with auto companies to maintain tougher emissions standards than those set by the federal government. Four auto companies, including Ford, Volkswagon, Honda, and BMW, had agreed to the state standards. The auto industry, in general, has pushed back against Trump’s rollback of emission standards, fearing that it would complicate markets, forcing production of cars that were environmentally unacceptable in other countries. And environmental advocates expressed concern that if the revocation was successful, it would lead to worsening air quality across the country. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have followed California’s lead in tougher regulations regarding vehicle emissions. According to state officials, the average car sold in California today emits 99 percent less smog-producing pollutants than those sold in the 1970s. (Popular Science)

• The “Linear No-Threshold,” or LNT model for understanding radiation exposure, has, for the most part, guided regulatory oversight since the dawn of the nuclear age — and it’s easy to understand why. It essentially holds that every exposure to radiation is detrimental, and that as exposure levels go up, so does the damage to our DNA. But not all scientists agree that this is an accurate — or even useful — way to understand nuclear radiation. After all, they say, radiation is all around us, “emanating up from the Earth itself, and raining down on us from the cosmos,” Mark Wolverton reported for Undark. More importantly, the public’s outsized fear of radiation — driven largely by the LNT framing — might well be doing more harm than good. How? By driving people away from nuclear power, to cite one example — precisely at a time when low-carbon energy solutions are desperately needed. Meanwhile, the forced evacuations and associated panic following the partial meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima power plant in 2010, some experts argue, contributed to more deaths than the accident itself. Of course, not everyone agrees with the anti-LNT advocates, and most major public health experts argue that even if it’s true that low-level radiation exposures are, in the grand scheme of things, essentially harmless, the precautionary principle should prevail. It’s a debate that is unlikely to be settled anytime soon. “Protection from any toxic agent needs to err, if anything,” one source told Wolverton, “on the prudent side to assure protection.” (Undark)

• MIT students and faculty are calling for an overhaul of the institute’s fundraising processes following revelations that a number of senior administrators at MIT — beyond former Media Lab director Joichi Ito — were aware of the university’s relationship with convicted pedophile and accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Last Friday, hundreds of MIT community members took to the steps of the university’s student center to denounce the university’s involvement with Epstein and other high-profile donors, including Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and conservative industrialists Charles G. Koch and his late brother David. In speeches, members of the group MIT Students Against War, who organized the rally, called on the MIT administration to release the names of those who had accepted Epstein’s funding and called for the firing of anyone aware of the relationship — including university president L. Rafael Reif. Then, during a nearly two-hour faculty meeting on Wednesday, Heather Paxson, an anthropology professor, and Lisa Parks, a comparative media studies professor, read aloud a letter to Reif drafted and signed by dozens of tenured female faculty members. “The fact that this situation was even thinkable at MIT is profoundly disturbing, and is symptomatic of broader, more structural problems, involving gender and race, in MIT’s culture,” the letter read. “It is time for fundamental change.” The protests follow the revelation late last week of emails from MIT computer scientist Richard Stallman, in which he argued that some of Epstein’s victims were “entirely willing,” and described the distinction between a 17- and a 18-year-old victim as a “minor” detail. Stallman resigned earlier this week. (Multiple sources)

• A Bloomberg Business report this week details the dismal market impact of an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in 2017 after Congress failed to overturn the Affordable Care Act (ACA). By expanding short-term limited-duration insurance policies (STDIs) from three months of coverage to one year, the executive order claimed to make way for an “appealing and affordable alternative” to the ACA. Instead, the families interviewed say they got blindsided by hospital bills, with one company requiring more than $244,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for surgery following a heart attack. While fewer than 100,000 people were enrolled in STDIs in 2018, the Trump administration expects an increase of 600,000 this year, likely leaving even more Americans with barebones coverage. Complaints submitted to the Federal Trade Commission note many cases of consumers purchasing coverage from Health Insurance Innovations, one of the biggest STDI providers on the market, only to have their claims rejected or barely covered. (Bloomberg)

• The Trump administration is ramping up efforts to crack down on foreign influence in science. On Monday, Kelvin Droegemeier, chair of the National Science and Technology Council, announced that a committee on research security is collecting a list of incidents “in which our research enterprise was exploited or compromised” by foreign governments. The investigation, disclosed in an open letter to scientists, is part of a far-reaching plan to protect U.S. research from foreign tampering. Although the letter doesn’t mention bad actors by name, the efforts are thought to be primarily targeted at China: In recent months, several U.S. agencies and institutions have investigated researchers of Chinese descent for failing to disclose foreign funding or otherwise running afoul of security safeguards. But many U.S. scientists have cried foul, arguing that heavy-handed treatment of foreign nationals working in the U.S. threatens the country’s ability to attract top research talent. Wayne Mowery, chair of the Association of University Export Control Officers, told Nature in April, “If students are told they cannot do cutting-edge research at US institutions, they are going to go elsewhere.” (Nature)

• And finally: The University of California (UC) announced on Tuesday that it is cutting fossil fuel investments from its $80 billion pension and endowment funds. In a co-authored op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Jagdeep Singh Bachher, the school’s chief investment officer and treasurer, and Richard Sherman, chair of the UC Board of Regents’ Investments Committee, write: “We believe hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk.” The op-ed states that UC will have eliminated all fossil-fuel investments from the university’s $13.4-billion endowment fund by the end of September, and that its $70-billion pension “will soon be that way as well.” UC’s announcement comes after its president, Janet Napolitano (who will step down next August) signed a letter along with the 10 chancellors of UC schools declaring a climate emergency. While the op-ed emphasizes that the decision to divest was purely financial, it acknowledges that UC faculty and students strongly believe transitioning to investments in clean energy is imperative to combat climate change. (The Associated Press)

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1 comment / Join the Discussion

    How have they not figured it out! It is literally the THC oil vape pens and the cartridges that have been put into the system, the cartridges are faulty and causing the lung scarring and breathing problems, along with vitamin e, acetate! It is not the Nicotine based E cigs. It is the THC based vape pens people have been using.

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