Last week’s column, on the ever-emulsifying scandal adjacent to vaping, only scratched the surface; this week, we progress toward full-on abrasion. By now, the number of those rendered less-than-well has exceeded a thousand, with the body count approaching two dozen. Most notably, the geographic scope of these deaths has recently expanded to include our state, which makes all of this stuff officially Relevant. Vaping deaths have been recorded in Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon and Virginia.
While cases of vaping-related illness have been noted in almost every state and territory, the highest concentration of illness appears to be in California, the original capital of Vape Nation. The Golden State was also the first state to flip on the gimmick, as health officials there formally advised residents to cease vaping altogether a couple of weeks ago. (Yeah, good luck on that.) Rhode Island made a similar move, and others will surely follow in the days to come. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued its own fact sheet on Oct. 4, which signals an increased federal role in the investigation.
We’re hearing a lot about all this from non-professionals, myself included. I wanted to get some fresh insight from an insider, so I turned to my friend Jonathan Byron. He’s a co-founder of the local chapter of NORML and, most importantly, a PhD. “I don’t know for sure,” he says, convincingly. “Could be lots of things that cause local damage. A more mundane scenario would involve a flavoring that is fine orally, but which is converted to a toxin at high temperatures.”
Another theory was floated by an anonymous source. “Here is a scenario for there is absolutely no evidence, but which would make a great movie: CBD is being cooked into THC and put into the cartridges, but there is residual acidity that they did not neutralize, along with toxic solvents and a bit of catalyst. They will not be able to test directly for acid because the body neutralizes it quickly—after it damages the lungs.
The CDC stipulates that the “specific chemical exposure(s) causing lung injuries associated with e-cigarette use, or vaping, remains unknown at this time,” but there is no shortage of speculation. At least one prominent brand of vape cartridge has been found to contain traces of hydrogen cyanide, which is not really something you want inside your body. The lack of formal regulation empowers any random slapnutz to take liberties. The continued sale of empty cartridges is a gimme for the short-con; you can put anything in there, and be long gone before anyone notices.
The industry has rebounded from their initial shock and awe, and is mounting a PR defensive. In particular, smoke shop owners around the region reiterate that it’s not really a nicotine thing, that most cases seem connected to bootleg THC cartridges (or “carts” if you’re hep), and that everything available in actual stores are safe. They accuse the CDC of being alarmist and driven more by politics than public safety, and that’s a fair point to make. After all, in the era of Trump, all sources of official authority are questionable, if not wholly illegitimate, so skepticism is always advised.