Following a recent report from Mayo Clinic researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists at Colorado Green Lab have begun publishing a blog series that offers a compelling hypothesis to the problem of what’s causing the rash of vaping-associated pulmonary injuries, as an ongoing wave of illnesses is coming to be known (VAPI for short).
The Mayo Clinic researchers pointed to VAPI patients from Illinois and Wisconsin, pointing out that lung micrograph images appear to more closely resemble chemical burns than a lung infection like pneumonia.
“The underlying cause is now believed to be chemical exposure, and not an infectious disease,” Colorado Green Lab co-owners Frank Conrad and Cindy Blair write. “The VAPI syndrome is strongly correlated with the use of black market THC vape cartridges, but the CDC has yet to conclusively identify a vaping product, or additive common to all cases.”
The lab’s first blog post was published Oct. 5. In that piece, Conrad and Blair connect the details of the Mayo Clinic report to cadmium pneumonitis symptoms—significant lung damage as a result of metal fume exposure. These symptoms might more readily be found among welders, but, here they are, showing up in patients across the U.S. who’ve reported using THC vapes or e-cigarettes prior to their illness and who in some cases have progressed to respiratory failure.
Blair did not respond to a request for comment on the lab’s hypothesis; we will update this piece when we hear back. It is unclear when the second and third part of this series will be published.
The lab posits that it’s the cadmium in silver solder used in “lower-end vape pens” commonly found on the illicit market. Silver solder is used, the lab contends, as a financial incentive in keeping costs low. Cadmium, however, is highly toxic.
To reiterate what Conrad and Blair report: The CDC has not confirmed any correlation between specific causes and effects in the VAPI matter. “The full range of findings is conflicting, and no clear pattern has emerged regarding the source or cause of the illness,” they write. Still, the hypothesis is noteworthy—especially when considered in the broader industry conversation already taking chemical constituents of cannabis oil into account (like vitamin E acetate, which remains at the center of the discourse).
While the science plays out, governors in three states (Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington) have instituted temporary bans on segments of the vape market—mostly focused on “flavored” vape products. In Massachusetts, a four-month ban includes all vape products; in Oregon and Washington, vape products that contain only cannabis-derived terpenes will still be allowed. But critics have pushed back, insisting that bans will only shift consumers toward the illicit market—the presumed source of the VAPI problem.
The idea, according to those governors, is to provide time for investigators and researcher to determine the exact source of the problem. Whether that’s found in the hardware of illicit-market vape pens or in the thinning agents used in cannabis oil—the VAPI story continues to evolve.