Several states have recently reported dramatic upticks in the number of people experiencing illnesses associated with vaping. Reported cases have more than doubled, to 450, spread over 33 states, including Texas. While no one in Texas has died, six people have died elsewhere in the United States. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has confirmed a plan to ban at least some electronic cigarettes.
Dr. John William Hellerstedt is commissioner of Texas State Health Services, and is also a pediatrician. Vaping devices work by heating up an internal cartridge that's usually filled with a tobacco or a cannabis-derived solution. But Hellerstedt says it's unclear what else is in that solution.
"Nobody really knows what exactly is in all of these products," he says.
Vaping isn't exactly new; Hellerstedt says e-cigarettes have been on the market for more than a decade. But the recent spike in illnesses concerns public health officials. Beyond the recent surge in popularity, Hellerstedt says something else may be going on.
"Now that health care providers ... are aware of this, they're starting to report this syndrome," he says. "Whereas in the past, they may have just had this mysterious respiratory failure case on their hands and not even necessarily tied it back to vaping."
These respiratory illnesses have led some people to end up in intensive care, and some have even died. But there are earlier signs that vaping could be having adverse effects, Hellerstedt says.
"We have evidence that a lot of people present with abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea," he says. "But then that progresses over a period of some days to the point where they're having that respiratory failure."
To put it more simply, he says, "You can't breathe."
Some suspect that vitamin E acetate that often serves as a base for vaping solutions is causing the illnesses, or, possibly the flavorings that are included. Hellerstedt says because he and other public health officials don't know for sure, people should be wary of vaping at all. He says no child or pregnant woman should do it, and for everyone else, he urges caution.
"They should consider that there's something going on out there that we do not understand that poses a very serious health risk to them," Hellerstedt says.
Written by Caroline Covington.