Teens hospitalized after vaping

By: - August 7, 2019 9:13 am

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has launched an investigation after 11 Wisconsin youths were hospitalized with lung damage, possibly due to vaping. Although investigations are ongoing, DHS points to the recent use of e-cigarettes by the teens and urges anyone who has chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, or weight loss after vaping to seek immediate medical attention.

“Our disease investigators continue to gather information about the names and types of vape products that were used,” said DHS secretary-designee Andrea Palm. “We strongly urge people to avoid vaping products and e-cigarettes.”

The 11 patients, primarily from southeastern Wisconsin counties including Milwaukee, Waukesha, and Winnebago, described the above symptoms to doctors, DHS warned in a press release on Saturday. While some of the patients have responded well to steroid treatment, at least one needed assistance breathing. It is unclear whether there will be any long-term health concerns for the teens.

“We are still working to determine exactly why they’ve become sick, but all of them reported vaping,” Palm said in a DHS Facebook video. The video’s description notes that seven other cases are under investigation. There are also three cases in Illinois, close to the Wisconsin border, according to a CNN report on the situation. The two states are jointly investigating the situation.

Vaping and e-cigarette products have grown more popular over the last five years. Experts predict the global vaping market will grow from $8 billion in 2015 to $47 billion by 2025. The use of these products started as a trend among millennials, who saw it as a healthier alternative to smoking tobacco. In states with legalized cannabis, vaping has also been adapted for products using THC and CBD–the active ingredients in cannabis.

Legitimate CBD and THC vape products are often marketed as “organic” and manufacturers claim they do not contain chemicals that cause lung damage, but this is still being studied. One Harvard study found the flavoring chemical diacetyl, which has been associated with a condition known as “popcorn lung,” in 75% of flavored vape products.

The last two decades have produced two generations of Americans who’ve grown up surrounded by heavy anti-cigarette and tobacco messaging. In 2010, just 19% of adults said they smoked cigarettes, compared to 42% in 1965. But between 2014 and 2018, vaping among Wisconsin’s high schoolers increased by 154%, according to the Department of Health Services. These teens, part of Generation Z born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, are largely responsible for the dramatic increase in vaping.

Flavored, nicotine-free vape products have grown increasingly popular in modern teen culture. According to the Institute on Drug Abuse, 66% of teens said they vaped just for flavor. A separate DHS graphic says four out of five kids who’ve used tobacco had first tried a flavored product. Flavored vapes also give teens a way of showing off for friends by doing tricks using vapor. A sprawling black market also distributes counterfeit and entirely unique, unregulated products.

Studies are still being conducted on the full chemical composition of vape products, and their effects on the body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as local healthcare providers are investigating cases in Wisconsin and Illinois to discover any common sources of products used by the afflicted teens.

Investigators continue to interview the sick teens in Wisconsin to determine what caused this extreme damage to their lungs. It’s unknown what type of vape, flavored or nicotine-free, legitimate or black market, might have caused the rash of hospitalizations. Updates on the DHS investigation can be found on this page, which will be updated on Thursdays.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.