Zeroing in On the Culprit: Cheap Bootlegged Vape Pens

The vaping brouhaha cruises along on an a seemingly endless loop of bad news: A thunderous blast of fearful headlines warning Americans about the “vaping scourge” followed by an unfortunate series of questionable regulatory maneuvers. Alarming headlines. Misguided governmental action. And on and on it goes.

Cadmium in Many Inexpensive Bootlegged Vape Pens May Be the Culprit

But a study published Oct. 5 may help end the cycle of doom and bring some much-needed light into a murky story. Colorado Green Lab, an independent testing facility based in Denver, revealed what may be one of the major culprits in the nationwide wave of vaping illnesses. According to the report, inhalation of the chemical cadmium causes Metal Fume Fever (MFF). Cadmium is found in many inexpensive bootlegged vape pens sold primarily in unregulated markets. 

According to the report, common symptoms of MFF include: 

Typical symptoms of metal fume fever are non-specific (“flu-like”), and can include cough, raised temperature (“fever”), headache, chills, aches, dizziness, and a sweet or metallic taste in the mouth. More severe exposure can result in gastrointestinal symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. 

The study, first reported by Willamette Week, a Portland-based weekly newspaper, reveals that silver solder – used to make stable unions between dissimilar metals such as copper and stainless steel – elicits a burst of inflammatory cytokines, causing fever, headache, joint pain and other negative symptoms. 

Regulated vaping products DO NOT contain silver solder as they use cadmium-free materials. The harmful soldering method is used by unscrupulous black market vape pen outfits manufacturing a low-end, dangerous product.   

A Summer of Vape Related Ailments … and Confusion 

This summer, hundreds of vape users with unusual respiratory ailments began popping up in clusters across the nation. These patients exhibited common symptoms of pneumonia and most were prescribed antibiotics as the first course of treatment. None of the patients  improved on antibiotics and further tests revealed no evidence of pulmonary infection. 

One specific example occurred in Wisconsin and Illinois between June and August. According to a report published Sept. 6 in the New England Journal of Medicine, 53 patients suffered severe lung illness due to vaping, including one fatality. The study concluded that “no single product or substance has been associated with the illness.” The authors of the study urged consumers not to purchase products “from sources other than authorized retailers.”  

While there is no consensus in the scientific community regarding the root cause of the outbreak, there are some other factors contributing: black market cartridges, cutting agents such as vitamin E acetate and some unregulated flavoring agents. 

Regulations Not Attacking the Root Cause of Vaping Safety Issues

Which brings us back to how state and federal agencies are reacting to the vaping issue. In late September, Massachusetts, New YorkMichigan, Rhode Island and Washington announced plans to remedy the problem. This month, Oregon joined the fray. The six states took slightly different approaches, but none directly addressed the knock-off vape pens.  

On Oct. 4, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration warned Americans to “stop using THC-containing vaping products and any vaping products obtained off the street.” The last three words of the urgent federal warning are key: Purchasing ANY cannabis product “off the street” is not only ill-advised and illegal, it is potentially dangerous to your health.  

Dr. David Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at NYU, fears the governmental overreach may be do more harm than good. Abrams cautions that banning vape devices will force more consumers into the black market or smoking cigarettes.

Abrams notes that the authors of a December 2018 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found people who only vaped showed up to 98% lower concentrations of exposure biomarkers (indicators of toxic chemical exposure that cause disease) than people who only smoked. The main biomarkers of chemical exposure that cause cancer were much lower than smoked tobacco. 

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