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A 20-year-old man who used to vape every day almost died from a life-threatening lung injury, and ‘vape juice’ might be the culprit

Hilary Brueck , Business Insider US
 Aug 29, 2019, 05:37 PM
Aaron Flores exhales water vapors from an electronic cigarette. At least one person has died from a lung injury after vaping.
Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
  • At least 193 cases of sever and mysterious lung illnesses associated with vaping have been identified this summer in the US alone.
  • Alexander Mitchell, a 20-year-old man from Utah, almost died right after he bought a new bottle of vape juice.
  • Mitchell now says he'll never vape again. Studies suggest that young people like him make up a significant portion of the vaping market, in part because they love the flavor oils that may be causing these lung issues.
  • For more stories go to

Daniel Mitchell says he "wept" at the thought he was going to have to bury his child.

"I felt that we were going to be planning a funeral," Mitchell told KUTV, after his son, 20 year-old Alexander Mitchell contracted a dangerous lung illness that puzzled his doctors.

The young man had a case of lipoid pneumonia (a condition caused by fat or oil in the lungs), which quickly escalated into acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening condition that put him on life support. Health experts suspect that Mitchell's daily vaping habit may have been at fault.

The younger Mitchell told KUTV he bought "a new bottle of juice," the liquid that gives vapes their flavors, which can also deliver nicotine or other drugs, "and literally the next day is when everything started going downhill."

At least 193 similar lung issues have been reported across 22 US states this summer, according to the CDC, all associated with e-cigarette use. One Illinois man died last week after vaping, and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) says at least 21 others, ranging from age 17 to 38, are having breathing issues. Some of the patients said they were vaping cannabis oil (THC) when they started feeling sick, but no specific brands have been implicated in the illnesses.

Symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, vomiting, and diarrhea.

"The severity of illness people are experiencing is alarming and we must get the word out that using e-cigarettes and vaping can be dangerous," IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement.

Vape oils may be to blame for the lung damage

Health experts don't fully understand why this is happening, but the CDC says that some of the ingredients in aerosols created by vaping may do long-term damage to the lungs.

A 2018 BMJ case report looked at a 34-year-old British woman who'd been vaping for three years when she developed lipoid pneumonia and respiratory failure, similar to Mitchell's. The case suggested that vegetable glycerine in e-cigarettes may be to blame.

"Some e-cigarette flavorings may be safe to eat but not to inhale because the gut can process more substances than the lungs," the CDC says on its website.

Doctors are worried about the additives in e-cigarettes, too. Scott Aberegg, a University of Utah pulmonologist told the Washington Post he thinks the uptick in lung issue reports this summer across the US might be caused by ingredients in vape oils "to dilute or add to them."

An overwhelming majority of young people who vape (81%) say tasty vape juice flavors are a primary reason they use e-cigarettes. It's a big enough phenomenon that that last year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) barred gas stations and convenience stores from selling fruit and candy-flavored vape juices.

According to the US Department of Health and Human services, vapes may contain chemicals like acrolein, "which can cause irreversible lung damage." But because the devices aren't FDA regulated, chemicals in them may not necessarily be listed on vape packaging.

Health departments are encouraging doctors who see patients with unexplained respiratory illnesses to ask about their vaping and e-cigarette use.

Mitchell, however, says he's done using vape juice. The Post reports the young outdoorsman is back to doing what he loves, though he's not quite the same hiker he used to be.

"I'm at 25% diminished lung capacity now," Mitchell told KUTV. "Vaping's promoted as a safer alternative when, in reality, it's not."

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