Federal officials announced Friday they discovered an oily derivative of vitamin E in the lungs of patients hospitalized with vaping-related illnesses, a finding the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called a "breakthrough."
The additive, vitamin E acetate, is sometimes used to dilute THC oil, particularly by street dealers. THC is the compound in marijuana that produces a “high."
Of 29 lung tissue samples from 10 states tested for the additive, all contained vitamin E acetate.
"These new findings are significant because for the first time, we have detected a potential toxin of concern – vitamin E acetate – in biologic samples from patients with lung injuries associated with the use of e-cigarette or vaping products," Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC said.
She described it as a "breakthrough" that the additive was found "at the primary site of injury within the lung."
The CDC reported that as of Tuesday, the outbreak had sickened 2,051 people and resulted in 39 confirmed deaths. Schuchat noted the "trend in cases appears to be downward, but some states are still being hard hit."
The announcement of a possible cause of the lung injuries came soon after President Donald Trump said Friday morning that the administration would raise the legal age to purchase electronic cigarettes nationally, probably to 21. The move is tied to a much-anticipated rule on flavored vaping products Trump said would be announced next week.
Federal and state investigators previously found evidence of vitamin E acetate in samples of the substances vaped by hospitalized patients, but the new test results tie the ingredient directly to the injuries. Officials used a diagnostic tool to collect lung fluid samples and identify cells containing tiny oily droplets known as lipid-laden macrophages, which are a marker of the disease.
Dr. James Pirkle at the National Center for Environmental Health described the additive as sticky as honey. That helps explain why it was found in all the 29 lung samples, though THC was found in 23 of 28 samples tested for it. Pirkle said THC wouldn't necessarily remain in the lungs and urine tests might have been needed to confirm its presence.
Also Friday, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported the results of a study that found lung injury victims were more likely than noninjured vapers to exclusively use THC, buy those products from informal sources such as dealers, street sources or friends and to vape five or more times a day.
The survey found young men were more likely to vape THC products most often. One in four men ages 18 to 34 reported using THC-containing e-cigarette or vaping products five or more times each day, compared with 13% of similar-aged women.
The majority of lung illnesses were in people who vaped nicotine and THC or THC alone but came as teen nicotine vaping numbers soar, increasing pressure on regulators to act.
The legal age for vaping varies by state; many allow it at 18, and others increased it to 21. E-cigarette use among high school students more than doubled from 2017 to 2019 to 27.5%. About 5.3 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes this year, up from 3.6 million in 2018.
On the White House lawn Friday, Trump said his administration, which has been lobbied heavily by the vaping industry, will come out with "a very important position on vaping" next week.
"We have to take care of our kids, most importantly, so we're going to have an age limit of 21 or so," Trump said. "We have a lot of people to look at, including jobs frankly, because you know it's become a pretty big industry."
A pro-vaping rally is planned for Saturday across from the White House.
Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, applauded raising the legal purchasing age.
"It appears President Trump is wisely preparing to enact smart regulations rather than embracing the losing politics of prohibition,” Conley said. “Raising the age to purchase tobacco and nicotine products to 21 puts the industry on a similar footing with other adult industries like alcohol and marijuana."
Contributing: John Fritze
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vaping illness breakthrough comes as flavor ban, age restriction nears