The spate of mysterious lung illnesses linked to vaping are most likely caused by noxious chemical fumes, a team of doctors at the Mayo Clinic said Wednesday.
The findings, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, are the latest effort by health officials to determine why hundreds of people across the country have been hospitalized in recent months with dangerous and sometimes fatal lung issues. But the results are a far cry from a silver bullet and appear to only nullify initial reports that speculated patients’ lungs were getting clogged and damaged by the oils that were being inhaled.
“It seems to be some kind of direct chemical injury, similar to what one might see with exposures to toxic chemical fumes, poisonous gases and toxic agents,” Brandon Larsen, a surgical pathologist at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, said in a statement.
The Mayo effort was the first formal study of tissue samples from patients who fell ill after vaping. Two of those samples came from people who died.
Larsen later told The New York Times the injuries resembled toxic chemical exposure and look similar to the lungs of “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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week it had confirmed the mysterious lung injuries in at least 805 people from 46 states. The agency said at the time at least 12 people had died, but more states have reported fatalities in recent days, bringing the total to at least 16.
The findings from the Mayo Clinic contradict earlier results from researchers who had initially linked the illnesses to a rare ailment called lipoid pneumonia that typically occurs when people accidentally inhale oil into their lungs, according to Reuters. Health officials in New York had also linked the vaping ailments to a chemical in an oil derived from vitamin E last month.
But the Mayo researchers said that they saw no evidence in the 17 lung biopsies they examined. The samples were taken from 13 men and four women, and 71% had vaped marijuana or cannabis oils.
“While we can’t discount the potential role of lipids, we have not seen anything to suggest this is a problem caused by lipid accumulation in the lungs,” Larsen said.
Officials have yet to identify what is causing the lung damage in vape users, and the CDC said last week that no single e-cigarette product or vaping substance had been linked to all of the cases.
“This is a public health crisis, and a lot of people are working frantically around the clock to find out what the culprit or culprits could be — and what chemicals may be responsible,” Larsen said in a statement. “Everyone should recognize that vaping is not without potential risks, including life-threatening risks, and I think our research supports that.”
Though federal health officials have been warning Americans to avoid vaping while they determine what components of e-cigarettes may be to blame, some cities and states have taken it upon themselves to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes to curtail their use. Michigan was the first to announce a statewide ban on some of the products, and New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island followed suit later in September.