FDA Starts Criminal Investigation into Vaping Illness

FDA letters on blocks

As of October 2019, a mysterious lung illness caused by vaping has killed dozens of people and injured thousands of others — but researchers have not determined a sole cause. In response, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has launched a criminal investigation. The agency wants to know what substances cause the illness and who is to blame.

Vaping Illness Outbreak Raises FDA Concerns

In August 2019, news outlets across the United States reported the first death related to a vaping illness. This news triggered a worldwide reaction — and the start of an epidemic, with reports of injuries and illnesses skyrocketing.

As more reports came to light, the FDA formally announced its criminal investigation into vape products in September 2019. The investigation secretly began in the summer, with the hopes of bringing those responsible for the illnesses to justice.

This criminal probe comes at a crucial time in the vaping crisis. As of October 2019 — just two months after the first vape-related death — nearly 1900 have gotten sick and 37 have died from this mysterious illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As part of its investigation, the FDA is working alongside the CDC, as well as federal, state, and local governments, to get to the bottom of the vaping illness epidemic.

What Is a Vaping Illness?

A vaping illness is a possibly life-threatening health issue that affects the respiratory system.

When someone vapes, they inhale a mix of flavorings, toxic chemicals, and addictive drugs like nicotine directly into their lungs. This mix is sold in a liquid form and stored in a cartridge, and it turns into a vapor when the device heats up.

Other chemicals like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may also be added by those who sell “knock-off” vape cartridges. Depending on the chemicals present, vaping illnesses can develop over a few months or even a few days in some cases.

Notable symptoms of vaping illness include: 

  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Dry cough or wheeze
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

Doctors and agencies like the FDA still do not know the exact chemicals that cause vape illnesses.

However, the CDC report released in late October 2019 noted that 86% of vaping illnesses were caused by cartridges containing THC — which are not legally available in most states. This could be the first step in solving this dangerous mystery.

Why Is the FDA Investigating Vaping Lung Illness?

The goal of the FDA’s investigation is two-fold. First, the agency wants to determine what chemicals in vape products cause illnesses and if illegal substances like THC play a role.

Second, the FDA wants to apprehend those responsible for making young people sick. At this time, the agency suspects that modified vape cartridges containing THC — which are sold on the black market by drug dealers — may play a role in the vaping crisis.

THC-containing vape cartridges often contain other dangerous additives that consumers may not know about. One such additive is vitamin E acetate, which can lead to chest pain, vomiting, and shortness of breath if inhaled.

The FDA said it will not pursue the arrest of patients who got sick from vape products containing THC at this time.

“The focus is on the supply chain,” said Mitch Zellner, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, in a 2019 interview with the Washington Post.

The FDA hopes to analyze samples of vape products to determine what chemicals are making people sick and where the chemicals came from. This analysis takes place in its Forensic Chemistry Center.

FDA and Vape Sample Analysis

The FDA’s Forensic Chemistry Center allows the agency to study and monitor chemicals in vape products. By analyzing specific chemicals, the agency hopes to trace them back to their original suppliers.

The center is currently analyzing vape samples and testing them for: 

  • Heavy metals
  • Nicotine
  • Opioids
  • Pesticides
  • THC and other cannabinoids
  • Toxins and poisons

According to an October 2019 FDA report, the center has received more than 700 vape samples. Most of the samples tested contain THC.

Protect Yourself from Vaping Lung Illness

As of 2019, answers to the vaping illness epidemic remain elusive. The FDA and CDC do not currently know the exact substances or chemicals causing these illnesses and deaths, even though CDC data suggests THC could be a factor.

“It’s important to say that no single product, substance, brand, or additive is linked to all the cases right now, and what is on a label may not actually be what the product is,” CDC deputy director Dr. Anne Schuchat told CNN.

As of 2019, the FDA has not announced any criminal charges, and its investigation is still ongoing. The agency recently expanded its criminal enforcement operations across the globe as the vape crisis worsens. The FDA hopes to catch shipments of illegal vape products entering the U.S. from other countries and stop them from being sold over the internet.

Until all vaping health risks are fully known, people should use caution. The FDA issued a statement saying people should not use vape products with THC or modify vape products to contain illegal drugs.

Ideally, the best way to stay safe is not to vape at all — and to keep up to date on the latest information and developments.

Additionally, if you developed a lung illness linked to vaping, be honest with your doctor. If you used a THC-containing vape product, tell them. Vaping has proved to be fatal time and again — protect yourself and don’t become a statistic.

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  1. Hauck, G. (2019, August 24). Illinois officials claim possible first death from vaping-related illness; investigation ongoing. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/08/23/vaping-death-illinois-man-who-recently-used-e-cigarette-dies/2096212001/.
  2. Sun, L. (2019, September 19). Vaping-related illnesses surge as FDA discloses criminal probe. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2019/09/19/vaping-related-illnesses-surge-fda-announces-criminal-probe/.
  3. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2019, October 17). Forensic Center’s Critical Role in Vaping Illness Investigation. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/fdas-forensic-chemistry-center-playing-critical-role-vaping-illness-investigation.
  4. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2019, October 10). Expanding Criminal Enforcement Operations. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/fda-voices-perspectives-fda-leadership-and-experts/expanding-criminal-enforcement-operations-globally-protect-public-health.
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