Vitamin E acetate, an ingredient frequently added to bootleg THC vaping products, has been found to be a “very strong culprit” in the outbreak of lung injuries that has sickened more than 2,000 people and killed 39, federal officials said Friday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the finding a “breakthrough” in the investigation into what has caused vaping-linked lung injuries throughout the country.
“For the first time, we have detected a potential toxin of concern: vitamin E acetate,” Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, said Friday during a call with reporters.
But officials added that other chemicals or toxins could also be causing the severe lung injuries.
Investigators said they tested samples of fluid from the lungs of 29 patients with vaping illnesses from 10 states, and found vitamin E acetate in all 29 cases.
“These findings provide direct evidence of vitamin E acetate at the primary site of injury within the lung,” Schuchat said.
THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, was found in 82% of the samples and nicotine was identified in 62% of them, officials said.
Vitamin E is an ingredient commonly found in products ranging from skincare lotions to food or supplements, and it is not typically believed to be harmful.
But officials believe it can be dangerous when inhaled.
Jim Pirkle, director of the laboratory science division at CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, described vitamin E acetate found in the lungs as a sticky coating that was like “honey” in the lungs of sick patients.
“When it goes into the lung, it does hang around,” Pirkle said.
Vitamin E has already been identified as a possible source of lung injuries in previous testing. It is believed to be frequently used as a cutting agent or additive in bootleg THC vaping products to stretch the amount of THC in vape cartridges in an effort to increase profits, officials say.
Many of the THC products linked to the outbreak were obtained illegally, officials have said.
Criminal investigations into counterfeit THC cartridge manufacturing are continuing, including a large bust involving a Kenosha family and another recent bust in Milwaukee. It’s unclear whether those alleged operations involved the use of vitamin E acetate.
Friday’s announcement came shortly after President Donald Trump told reporters that his administration plans to raise the legal age to purchase e-cigarettes nationally, likely to 21, as part of its new rules on flavored vaping products set to be announced next week.
Eighteen states already have established 21 as the age to buy tobacco and vaping products, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
State lawmakers in Wisconsin are currently considering legislation that would set the age to buy tobacco and vaping products at 21.
Children’s Wisconsin doctors helped uncover the nationwide outbreak after treating a series of teen patients this summer.
In July, Children’s Wisconsin physicians held a news conference announcing that eight Wisconsin teens had been hospitalized after vaping. The doctors warned they were seeing previously healthy teens with sudden symptoms such as extreme cough, trouble breathing, fatigue, weight loss, vomiting and diarrhea. They urged other medical providers nationwide who saw similar cases to report them.
This week, the CDC said that 2,051 confirmed and probable cases of vaping-linked lung illnesses and 39 deaths had been reported nationwide.
Officials said the investigation is continuing and that there may be multiple causes of the lung illnesses, but they stressed the significance of the vitamin E findings.
“We are in a better place in terms of having one very strong culprit,” Schuchat said.