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The price to vape: inside the vaping epidemic

YUMA, Ariz. (KYMA) - Health officials in the U.S. report a rise in lung illnesses and deaths linked to vaping. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that there are 47 deaths and 2,290 illnesses.

This is the first time in history vaping has been directly linked to fatalities. So far, doctors have pinpointed a synthetic form of Vitamin E found in patients' lungs as the culprit. But what else is in these devices?

Before looking at the crisis itself, it's important to understand that vaping, in this case, is broken down into two categories: vaping nicotine and vaping THC, the ingredient in cannabis that gets you high.

Of the cases reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80% are coming from patients who say they've vaped THC products with or without nicotine. The rest, patients who've reported using only nicotine products.

Local reverend David Fleck has been using nicotine e-cigarettes for eight years. He mixes his own juices and says these nicotine e-cigs have been crucial in keeping him away from traditional cigarettes.

“August 1st, 2011, I remember that day very well,” said Fleck. “I picked up my first e-cigarette that day and I have not touched a regular cigarette since.”

He says his lungs and heart are in considerably better health compared to when he would smoke cigarettes.

“My doctors couldn’t believe how much better my lungs looked today compared to back then,” said Fleck.

But he admits, neither are good for you.

Doctors say vapes are more concentrated, containing about 200 puffs total. One cartridge of the brand Juul is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes, but teens are going through them faster.

Researchers say, on average, teen vapers smoke what would be about 20 cigarettes a week.

“If you’ve never had a cigarette, you should never pick up an e-cigarette,” said Fleck. “E-cigarettes should only be for those of us that are trying to quit.”

The CDC is revealing that a lot of the people developing lung illnesses are young adults, including teenagers. For Fleck, it's no surprise they are the victims.

“These kids can’t go into a dispensary because they are not old enough”, said Fleck. “So you’ve got ‘Joe Drug Dealer’ on the corner thinking ‘I could make some money by selling these kids some THC cartomizers,’ and that’s how people are getting sick, they’re buying black market cartomizers.”

Turns out, he might be right, the CDC is tying these sudden and mysterious lung illnesses not to the THC or the nicotine but to tampered cartridges, cut with products like Vitamin E acetate - something great for the skin but with no business being in the lungs.

"The illicit carts had the most dangerous stuff in it, at much higher levels,” said Director of Operations at CannaSafe Antonio Frazier. “And that dangerous stuff we found ended up being formaldehyde, other carcinogens, and carbon monoxide, and of course, hydrogen cyanide."

Some have suggested that oil in the lungs is to blame but a new Mayo Clinic study says they're seeing toxic chemical burns in patients' lungs.

"The type of chemical injury that we see very closely resembles the type of injury you see when a patient is involved in an industrial accident where there is a chemical spill," said Mayo Clinic Doctor Brandon Larsen.

Even the vaping industry itself  - hit hard by the crisis - claiming the recent outbreak is tied to tainted cartridges.

Stephen Aranda, General Manager of Jamestown Center, the only licensed marijuana dispensary in Yuma, says he hasn't seen a decline in the sale of cartridges but emphasizes there is a simple step consumers can take when vaping.

“Through the avenues of going through dispensaries, you’re going to mitigate those risks of getting tampered-with products,” said Aranda.

But some people aren't old enough to walk into a smoke shop or dispensary, such as high schoolers who run the risk of coming across tampered cartridges from illicit dealers.

El Centro Police Officer Ascension Felix, who's been a school resource officer at Central High School for the past four years and on the force for more than 20, says this is a problem in our area.

It’s an epidemic and it’s not just one school, it’s in all the schools,” said Felix. “You’re talking from high school all the way to junior high.”

In the first two months since the start of this school year, he reveals there have been up to 30 cases of e-cigarettes being found at all three of the high schools in El Centro - the most he's ever seen within that time frame in all his years as an SRO.

“Kids think that this is normal,” said Felix. “For the parents out there, be more vigilant and be more involved.”

He stresses it’s especially dangerous when these vape pens are sold on social media and delivered right to your doorstep.

“All of the students here in our community are future leaders. We need to educate them so they understand this is not right and that there are other things for them to do,” said Felix. “My biggest question is why are they doing this? We need to find the ‘why’ in order for us to take it a step further.”

As Seen on TV / Health

Anthony Wells

Anthony Wells joined KYMA News 11 in July 2017.

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