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New vaping numbers in Utah paint a troubling picture, health officials say

Photo: Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — New vaping numbers, released weekly by the Utah Department of Health, show ongoing concerns related to vaping or e-cigarette use aren’t going away. In fact, the statistics paint a troubling picture, both at the state and the national level.

The Centers for Disease Control confirmed at least 15 people have died in the U.S. connected to vaping, while numbers released by the state Department of Health show the issue is getting worse in Utah.

So far, Utah health officials say there are 71 confirmed cases of vaping-related lung disease in the state. It’s an increase¬†of more than 20 cases from the previous week.

Officials with the department are focused on identifying the key chemical component that is responsible for widespread lung injury. They can’t say for sure yet what exactly is behind the spread of illness. However, health officials say they feel like they’re on the verge of a breakthrough.

“We believe this is being driven by THC vaping,” explained lead investigator with the department, Keegan McCaffrey. “So vaping THC cartridges that have been purchased illegally.”

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive compound in marijuana — in other words, it’s the chemical believed to give marijuana users their “high.”

McCaffrey believes self-reporting statistics locally help to credit the notion that lung disease cases nationwide may be linked to vaping THC.

“6% of the cases we’ve seen have self-reported only vaping nicotine,” said McCaffrey. “That’s compared to 36% of cases that have reported only vaping THC.”

With that in mind, a majority of vapers are actually using both, McCaffrey said.

“58% of our cases have vaped both nicotine and THC,” he added.

The investigative team has identified THC cartridges as the biggest concern right now.

“We know these are unregulated, we know they’re illegal, and we know they are being cut and tampered with,” McCaffrey said.

Even with the health department identifying a major concern, it could take some significant time to officially sort out the chemical responsible for so many health problems. For example, when the health department tested cartridges of both nicotine and THC earlier this month, the nicotine cartridges contained nicotine and no unexpected substances. 90% of the tested THC cartridges were “cut” with Vitamin E acetate.

“I think it could be months before we learn what is the actual chemical causing these injuries,” McCaffrey said.

The health department advised people not to vape THC cartridges until they are able to learn more about the causes and long-term effects.

People who get sick experience a range of symptoms including coughing, chest pain and fatigue. The Utah health department says about 94% of patients with the lung disease needed to be placed in a hospital. Some of those needed ventilator assistance to breathe.