Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson said Thursday that the joint investigation, which includes cooperation with agencies in both states, will seek to identify the source of the tainted cartridges and exactly what they were tainted with.
“It is still a very active investigation and, given the circumstances, it is one that we are taking very seriously,” Olson said. “While it is ongoing, the decision was made to release certain information to the schools and parents in the interest of safety.”
Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In a letter sent to parents of Stonington students on Wednesday, Youth Officer Kerry Browning said that in recent months there had been several reports of youths who had used a vape cartridge just prior to suffering “debilitating side effects and/or serious injuries.” The number of youth impacted in each community and their ages have not been released.
The letter to parents was also signed by Superintendent of Schools Van Riley.
Police said the cartridges used by those impacted have been reported to come in the same commercial box or sleeve, but the police said they have not yet confirmed whether it was a single brand or product, or if there may be additional types of cartridges in the region that have also been affected.
“It is currently unknown what exactly these vape cartridges are laced with and some are more potent than others, even though they come in the same ‘box’ or ‘sleeve,'” Browning said. “We are here to help take preventative measures to assist in keeping our youth safe both in and outside of school.”
It has not been determined where the impacted youth were able to purchase or access the vape cartridges, officials in both towns indicated.
The letter to parents also urged them to communicate with their children regarding both the dangers of vaping in general and the added problems that could now be caused by using a vape tainted with an unknown substance.
For the local school districts, both of which have taken a proactive role in combating teen use of vaping over the past several years, the recent health concerns are only the latest involving use of those devices by Westerly and Stonington students.
Although teens’ use of cigarettes has decreased, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, 19.3 percent of high school students in Rhode Island admitted to using e-cigarettes during a 2019 survey. The recent trends had included using JUUL, a brand-name small vaporizer that looks like a computer flash drive, making is easily concealable.
The issue isn’t specific to the region, however, and problems with tainted vape cartridges have led several states to take measures to restrict use and availability.
In 2020, Rhode Island joined New Jersey and New York in enacting bans on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and vape cartridges. In 2019, eight states — Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington — had issued emergency rules to temporarily ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and vape cartridges.
Amended federal legislation, which President Donald J. Trump signed into law in December with bipartisan support, also raised the legal age to buy or possess tobacco to 21 nationwide. As a result, it is illegal for any high school students to buy or possess the cartridges, even if they are 18.
Olson said parents should consider relaying this information to their children, as well as checking in periodically to make sure they do not have any questions and are remaining safe.
“It is extremely important, especially with the dangers this issue presents, that parents maintain an open line of communication with their children,” Olson said.