SALT LAKE CITY — Public health agencies statewide have confirmed 28 cases of severe lung disease and another 14 under investigation in people who vape nicotine or THC.
The Utah Department of Health has now branded the situation an "outbreak," with more cases expected in the coming weeks.
"Usually people having some [gastrointestinal] issues first, followed by the respiratory depression. The vast majority of our cases report vaping either a THC product and-or a nicotine product," said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist.
The vaping-related illness, which includes symptoms of coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, has grown in Utah in the past two weeks. Most of those patients require hospitalization, and some have been put in medically induced comas or on ventilators.
But pinpointing the exact cause is difficult. Dr. Dunn told FOX 13 they have been unable to identify a "patient zero" and there's no single brand or product isolated. The most common theme is that patients reported purchasing a product with THC and/or nicotine off the streets or out of state.
"We are looking at something that’s another source of inflammation that’s coming from a toxin or a chemical that is possibly as a result of vaping. The word 'outbreak' is because we have a cluster, you know, a group of people who are showing similar symptoms with similar risk factors resulting in an unusual illness," she said.
No local vape shops are suspected, Dr. Dunn said. It was welcome news to the Utah Vapors Business Association, which represents local vape shops.
"We have reason to believe that all of these incidents were caused by blackmarket THC cartridges that are using vitamin E or vitamin B oil as a base because of the low cost and this base condenses as fluid in the lungs thus causing lipid pneumonia," Juan Bravo, the group's president, said in a statement to FOX 13. "The UVBA strongly recommends that the health department request that these cases are tested for THC and that they advise the public that this is what's causing the illnesses and not product purchased at vape shops. Not disclosing this information we feel is irresponsible as the public may continue purchasing those cartridges thinking that its e-liquid that's causing the problem and continue getting sick because of it."
Lab results are not due back for another couple of weeks. The Utah Department of Health is expecting the case numbers to rise as more people report illnesses to their local health providers.
But Dr. Dunn said the best way to prevent it is to stop vaping altogether.
"The one consistent thing we have is all our cases reported vaping before the onset of this illness," she said. "Vaping we know is not good for your health so we definitely recommend not vaping and especially not vaping THC products, especially those bought on the street."