Dr. Kathy Lofy, an official with the Department of Health, announcing the first known vape illness in Washington state.
Dr. Kathy Lofy, an official with the Department of Health, announcing the first known vape illness in Washington state. Lester Black

Officials at the Washington Department of Health announced Wednesday that they had confirmed the first local case of a mysterious lung illness connected to vaping. The officials said one teenager in King County fell ill in early August with fever, cough, and shortness of breath and was hospitalized for five days.

Officials said the teenager reported using e-cigarettes for three years, including using a vape with nicotine, propylene glycol, and saffron. Dr. Jeff Duchin, a health officer for King County’s public health department, said authorities do not know the specific vape device that was used or if the teenager had used other cannabis-infused vaporizers.

“All we know is that this youth reported using nicotine products and some sort of saffron containing product, but we don’t know if there were additional products,” Duchin said.

The health authorities declined to specify exactly how old the individual was or what King County hospital treated the teenager.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported 450 cases of lung illnesses in 33 states with six confirmed deaths associated with the use of vape pens. Handheld vaporizers are used to heat either cannabis oil or e-cigarette juice to the point of becoming a steam-like substance, hence the reference to vapor, that is then inhaled. The majority of the nationwide illnesses have been connected to cannabis vape pens but there are some cases where individuals only used e-cigarettes.

Dr. Kathy Lofy, a health officer with the Washington Department of Health (DOH), said the state is proactively looking for vape-related illnesses by checking hospital and death records. Lofy said the individuals are being diagnosed with this vape-related illness if they have severe lung inflammation, do not test positive for lung infections, and have a history of recent vape use.

“In order to be a confirmed case in this situation the patient has to have some test that has ruled out infectious diseases,” Lofy said.

The CDC has pointed out that Vitamin E oil, a substance that some cannabis companies have been used to dilute vape cartridges, has been found in a high percentage of the vape pens. But Duchin said it was too early to point to one single culprit for the illnesses.

“It’s important to remember, since we don’t know exactly what is causing this, that it’s quite possible that there’s more that one thing happening,” Duchin said.

Legal cannabis vaporizers are regulated by Washington’s Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) but electronic cigarettes are not regulated by any state or federal authority. Vitamin E oil is not banned from Washington’s cannabis products, according to Brian Smith, a spokesperson for the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB). Cannabis companies in Washington are required to list all of their additives on vape cartridges so any cartridges containing the substance should be listed on their packaging.

Both Duchin and Lofy declined to say Wednesday if they thought Washington’s legal vape pens, which are regulated in part by the Department of Health, would not cause this respiratory illness.

Duchin said only the state government, not the county, can regulate tobacco products but if it were up to him he would ban all flavored electric vape cigarettes.

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“If we had the authority, I would recommend that we ban all flavored [e-cigarette] products so they are not as appealing to youth,” Duchin said. “We are sugar coating an… addictive drug with flavors that attract youth which is not something we should be doing.”

King County Executive Dow Constantine called for more regulations on vape products in an e-mailed statement Wednesday.

“It is imperative that the state take further action and expand regulations on tobacco and vaping products,” Constantine said. “If the legislature is unwilling to strengthen statewide protections, then it must lift preemption. Just like with firearms, state law prevents local jurisdictions from swiftly responding to the unique health issues impacting their communities.”

Lofy said Gov. Jay Inslee reached out to the department and is exploring possibly banning flavored vape cigarettes statewide.

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