How dangerous is vaping? What we know about its health risks

A London, Ont., youth was recently put on life support in the first known case of a vaping-related illness in Canada.

In the U.S., at least eight people have died from a mysterious respiratory illness related to vaping, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On Thursday, NPR reported there are 530 reported cases of vaping-related lung injuries in the U.S.

As more stories come out about the risks of vaping, eight Canadian health organizations have called for urgent action from the federal government to treat vaping like smoking.

But what exactly are the health risks of vaping? Here’s what you need to know.

What is causing vaping-related injuries?

While much is still unknown, the CDC said in a press release on Thursday that they are tracking vaping-related lung injuries. The organization said that based on data, most patients who have experienced the illness have reported using e-cigarette products containing THC — a cannabinoid found in cannabis.

Additionally, data shows that many affected patients reported vaping THC and nicotine, although some patients reported using e-cigarette products containing only nicotine.

Symptoms of vaping-related lung injury include cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever or abdominal pain, the CDC reported.

According to Dr. David Hammond, a professor of public health at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, most of the severe vaping-related illnesses are likely due to contamination. Hammond’s research focuses largely on nicotine, drug and public health policy.

“The CDC, through some of the testing, has identified that in some of the THC products people used is what would be considered a contaminant,” Hammond told Global News.

“The working hypothesis is that at least some — possibly most — of these cases are not involving nicotine, and are likely due to some sort of contaminant; something in there that shouldn’t normally be in there.”

In other words, Hammond says this likely means poor manufacturing and bad batches of products may be a factor in the outbreak.

As of now, there is no consistent e-cigarette or vaping product identified in all vaping-related illness cases, Hammond explained. There is also not one single product or substance “conclusively linked to lung disease in patients,” the CDC noted.

On Friday, Reuters reported that the U.S. investigation into the life-threatening lung illness has found that many patients had “pockets of oil clogging up cells responsible for removing impurities in the lungs.”

Researchers are trying to determine where the oil came from.

One theory, according to Reuters, is that the oil deposits are residue from inhaling vaping oils, such as those containing THC or vitamin E acetate. Both are considered possible contributors to the current illnesses.

“Vitamin E is in lots of foods, but if you heat it and inhale it, it can be toxic,” Hammond explained.

The harms of nicotine

Even outside of severe lung illness or injury, health experts are concerned with vaping — period. Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, the CDC reports, and nicotine is addictive and harmful to people at any age, but especially youth.

The stimulant can harm the developing adolescent brain, affecting the parts that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control the CDC noted. Research has found that there’s a “strong and robust” linkage between vaping and subsequent tobacco use.

Health Canada also says that nicotine can affect memory and concentration. Vaping liquid containing nicotine can be very harmful, the government agency notes, if it’s swallowed or absorbed through the skin.

Hammond adds that there’s also concern around pregnant women vaping, and their unborn children being exposed to potentially harmful chemicals.

Long-term risks of vaping still largely unknown

Hammond said that while vaping should not be considered safe, the long-term health effects are still not fully known. Vaping may be safer than smoking cigarettes he adds, but it still poses potential harm.

“Most of the chronic diseases that people hypothesize might be involved [in vaping] are things like cardiovascular disease and other lung problems,” Hammond said.

“Those do take a decade or two before they appear, just as the case for smoking… it’s not a benign activity.”

— With a file from the Canadian Press and files from Reuters 

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