The lungs of people who developed severe lung illnesses from vaping look as though they have been chemically burned, say researchers from the Mayo Clinic.
A new report, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, analyzed lung tissue samples from 17 people — including two deceased patients — who developed the vaping-related illness that has spread across the country. Doctors said that the samples looked like those of people who were exposed to mustard gas in World War I.
“All 17 of our cases show a pattern of injury in the lung that looks like a toxic chemical exposure, a toxic chemical fume exposure, or a chemical burn injury,” Dr. Brandon T. Larsen, a surgical pathologist at the Mayo Clinic, told The New York Times. “To be honest, they look like the kind of change you would expect to see in an unfortunate worker in an industrial accident where a big barrel of toxic chemicals spills, and that person is exposed to toxic fumes and there is a chemical burn in the airways.”
The Mayo Clinic’s report was released one day before the Centers for Disease Control announced that cases of severe lung illnesses linked to vaping are now up to 1,080 across 48 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The CDC also confirmed that there have now been 18 deaths from the illness, and that more are currently under investigation.
“Unfortunately, the outbreak of pulmonary lung illness is continuing at a brisk pace,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the C.D.C., said in a media briefing on Thursday. “This condition is serious.”
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The cases are primarily occurring in people who vaped THC-based products — about 78% of patients — but also include people who only used nicotine-based e-cigarettes, around 17%. The CDC said that they have not yet determined what in the products is leading to the illnesses.
“I wish we had more answers regarding the specific products that are causing these problems,” Schuchat said.
However, the Mayo Clinic said in their report that the issue does not seem to be related to the oils in vaping cartridges.
“So maybe we need to look more closely at the chemical compounds, and not just oils, but the chemical constituents, to figure out which ones are injurious,” Larsen told The New York Times.
Both Larsen and Schuchat said that they are concerned about any lasting lung damage in people who develop the severe lung illness. Larsen said that the samples showed tissue damage and cell death in the airways and the lungs, and as the dead cells wear away they block the airways, and fluid leaks into the air sacs.
“The lung is not very functional when it’s been damaged and is trying to repair itself,” Larsen said. “Based on the severity of injury we see, at least in some of these cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if we wind up with people down the road having chronic respiratory problems from this.”
Schuchat said during the press conference that they’re concerned for these patients’ long-term lung health.
“These are really serious injuries in the lung, and we don’t know how people will recover from them,” she said.