A lab in Cincinnati is testing hundreds of vaping products, seeking links to lung disease

Anne Saker, Cincinnati Enquirer

CINCINNATI – The search for answers to the mysterious lung disease apparently related to vaping goes through a low-slung building in an industrial park in a northern Cincinnati neighborhood.

The Forensic Chemistry Center in Cincinnati operates under the authority of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As a result, it’s a secretive place, and FDA officials declined repeated requests to tour the lab or speak with its leadership. An agency spokeswoman answered questions that The Cincinnati Enquirer submitted by email.

In the vaping investigation, the laboratory has received more than 400 samples of vaping products from 18 states, “and those numbers continue to increase,” the FDA said.

“More than half of the vaping liquid products have undergone some form of evaluation, and additional testing on these and other samples continues daily,” the FDA said. “Many samples have contained little to no liquid, which limits the number and types of tests FDA is able to conduct on each submission.”

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The lab is testing the cartridges for chemicals “including nicotine, THC and other cannabinoids, opioids, cutting agents/diluents and other additives, pesticides, poisons and toxins.”

“Sample results to date have not identified a single substance associated with all illnesses,” the FDA said. “Identifying compounds present in the samples associated with illnesses will be one piece of the puzzle and will not necessarily answer all questions about causality, which makes our ongoing work critical.”

The lab’s website says the facility is the nation’s “premier national forensic laboratory” where scientists conduct “analyses related to criminal, regulatory and counterterrorism investigations.”

Sixty scientists work at the lab. Another 11 people work in administration, information technology, chemical hygiene and quality management. Among its high-profile investigations that officials were willing to reveal include examining seafood from the Gulf of Mexico for contamination after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

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The lab supports the FDA’s criminal investigations, enforcement and import operations as well as other federal and state agencies. It investigates “product tampering, counterfeit and unapproved drugs, and fraudulent/adulterated FDA-regulated products,” the FDA said.

The Forensic Chemistry Center’s portfolio is growing so much that the FDA intends to start work in the next year on a laboratory expansion. The lab would get new equipment as well as more space, thanks to moving the FDA's regional office to the federal building downtown.

The lab’s director is Doug Heitkemper, who received his doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Cincinnati in 1989. He has spent his career at the FDA and served as the lab’s branch director for 13 years before taking the top job this year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that 1,080 cases of lung disease have been confirmed in 48 states and one U.S. territory. Eighteen deaths in 15 states have been attributed to the illness.

New York and Massachusetts have banned vaping products in light of the lung diseases, and on Oct. 1, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine proposed a ban for the Buckeye State.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Vaping and lung disease: FDA lab in Cincinnati testing cartridges