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CDC Says The Cause Of Vaping Related Deaths Is Still A Mystery


New numbers released by the CDC this afternoon point to another significant jump in cases of vaping-related lung disease. There are now 805 cases reported in 46 states and 12 deaths. But as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, the agency still does not know what is causing the outbreak.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Around the country, investigators are testing samples of vaping products that have been handed over by some of the patients who've gotten so sick, trying to figure out if there's a common substance that can explain all the illnesses. But so far, investigators are coming up short. Here's the CDC's Anne Schuchat, who gave two days of testimony on Capitol Hill this week.


ANNE SCHUCHAT: So we can't say any particular substance has been linked to all cases or the majority of cases as of yet.

AUBREY: Most patients acknowledge vaping THC or nicotine, but investigators are also analyzing the vape products for pesticides, toxins and the oils used in the products.


SCHUCHAT: It may not even be the THC or nicotine part. It may be additives or substances that may be common.

AUBREY: As the investigation carries on, one lawmaker, Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat of Illinois, asked about this theory that may help explain the outbreak.


RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI: If so many different vaping products are causing the same result, could the common link possibly be the process of vaping itself, inhaling aerosolized liquid particles into our lungs?

AUBREY: The CDC's Anne Schuchat says the agency needs to know more about the health impacts.


SCHUCHAT: We don't know enough about the aerosol that vaping produces. It may be that the process itself is risky. We also know that labels may be misleading and counterfeited. So right now the products are very diverse and vastly changing.

AUBREY: The outbreak of vaping-related lung disease brings into focus the wider epidemic of teen vaping. With so many high schoolers and college-aged young adults using e-cigarettes, the Federal Trade Commission is reportedly looking into whether Juul Labs, which markets vaping products, used social media influencers and other strategies to appeal to this age group. And the Food and Drug Administration has a wider investigation into the marketing practices.

The CDC's Schuchat weighed in on the role advertising may play in prompting teenagers to start vaping.


SCHUCHAT: There's just a lot of evidence that ads that are attractive to youth help them begin and that the type of products we have on the market right now are extremely addictive.

AUBREY: She says the so-called fourth generation of vaping products seem to have a number of factors that make them even more addictive than the e-cigarettes that preceded them.


SCHUCHAT: Juul and related products use nicotine salts, which can lead to much more available nicotine. We believe the product can cross the blood-brain barrier and lead to, potentially, more effect on the developing brain.

AUBREY: The risks include memory and attention problems and, of course, the risk of hooking a generation of kids on nicotine. That's why the CDC has said all along that kids and teens should not vape at all. The stakes may seem higher now given the more than 800 cases of serious illness and 12 confirmed deaths. And the CDC has repeated its warning, saying that while this investigation continues, everyone concerned should not vape.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLA BOO'S "ALOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey
Allison Aubrey is a Washington-based correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She has reported extensively on the coronavirus pandemic since it began, providing near-daily coverage of new developments and effects. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.