What We Know And Don’t Know About The Mysterious Vaping Illness

17:55 minutes

close-up of a man vaping an electronic cigarette
Credit: Shutterstock

Over 10 million Americans vape, or smoke electronic cigarettes. E-cigarettes are also the most popular tobacco product among teenagers in this country. Some of them are marketed with bright colors and fun flavors like chocolate, creme brulee, and mint—or they’re advertised as a healthier alternative to regular cigarette smoking. 

But last week, public health officials reported that a patient in Illinois died from a mysterious lung illness linked to vaping. In 29 states across the country, there are 193 reported cases of this unknown illness as of August 30. 

Most patients are teenagers or young adults and have symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. Patients with more severe cases have to be put on oxygen tanks and ventilators—and some may suffer from permanent lung damage. 

“Acute lung injury happens in response to all kinds of things, like inhaling a toxic chemical or an infection. This is similar to what we’d see there. The lungs’ protective response gets turned on and doesn’t turn off,” Frank Leone, a professor of medicine and the director of the Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Science Friday in a phone call earlier this week.  

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is still investigating the cause, but the illness is raising questions about the health effects of a growing smoking trend and how it should be regulated. 

“It’s sort of a Wild West out there,” Anna Maria Barry-Jester, a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, tells SciFri on the phone about current regulation of electronic cigarettes. Ira talks with Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Frank Leone about the illness and vaping’s health effects. 

Editor’s Note, August 30, 2019, 11:10 a.m. EDT: This page has been updated to reflect the most recent statistic of states that have reported cases of the illness. 

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Segment Guests

Anna Maria Barry-Jester

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior correspondent at Kaiser Health News, and is based in Santa Cruz, California.

Frank Leone

Frank Leone is a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and is the director of the Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Camille Petersen is a freelance reporter and Science Friday’s 2019 summer radio intern. She’s a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School. Her favorite science topics include brains, artificial brains, and bacteria.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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