Junaid Khan, a heart and lung surgeon in Oakland, California, thinks he may have just completed his first of many surgeries related to teen vaping injuries.
“I can’t prove to you this was related to vaping,” Khan told Insider, referring to a scan showing a dark, collapsed lung where a blister had popped in his patient’s chest cavity. “It could be something else, but there’s definitely an association.”
Khan, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Sutter Health Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, said that this summer, an 18-year-old young man (who remains anonymous) came to him after suffering a blistered lung. The patient had what’s called a pneumothorax, or collapsed lung, a dangerous problem in which air leaks into the space between the chest wall and the lung, making it hard to breathe. This can happen when blisters pop up inside the lungs.
“He actually needed surgery to relieve that air, to allow the lung to expand, and subsequently the blister had to be taken out surgically,” Khan said.
The procedure, Khan said, requires general anesthesia. “We go in with scopes, we have to cut the blister out with staples, and then leave tubes in to allow the lung to expand,” he said.
Young, skinny men are more susceptible to suffering these rare lung injuries than other people (and they also develop in smokers sometimes), but Khan has a hunch that vaping might have contributed to this particular case, especially because the blister was in an unusual location on the side of the lung.
Just a few months earlier, the patient said, he’d bought a THC marijuana vape from a pop-up shop at a rock concert.
Khan says his patient is recovering well, and “obviously he’s not going to vape anymore.”
But the lung doctor is worried that this will not be his last operation on a young vaper. He said other ER doctors and lung specialists in the Bay Area have told him that they’re seeing more vaping-related lung issues, too.
“By the time they get to me, that means the denominator is huge,” he said. “We are definitely seeing in the ED and in the lung clinic, more patients coming in who are starting to have respiratory issues, changes on their chest x-rays, things like that.”
Hundreds of lung injuries have been reported in vapers in recent months
Khan’s observations fit within a national trend of mysterious vaping injuries in recent months. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more than 450 possible cases of vaping-related lung illnesses have been tallied across 33 states. Five people are dead. Many of the patients have reported that they used cannabinoid liquids (especially THC) before they fell ill. Then they had trouble breathing, just like Khan’s patient.
“It’s on the verge of becoming a public-health crisis,” Khan said. “When I’m seeing these people, it means they’re needing surgery. That’s pretty dramatic.”
Khan and other experts, however, are still baffled about what’s causing the injuries. They think some vapes could be tainted with bad vape juice, or perhaps some oils are seeping into people’s lungs, where only air should be. Another theory is that some people’s bodies are mounting strange defensive immune responses to some vapes.
The adverse reactions people are having to vaping are more “accelerated” than the way lung damage in smokers typically progresses, Khan said.
“It’s almost like they’ve had an allergic reaction,” he added. “We think it’s probably a chemical reaction that’s occurring.”
Because the cause of these illnesses is still a mystery, the CDC is suggesting that “individuals consider not using e-cigarettes, because as of now, this is the primary means of preventing the severe lung disease.”
Khan also warned that vapers who “think they’re getting a great deal from the corner” on their marijuana vapes should think twice.
“We still don’t have a clear link as to what’s causing it, but clearly it has something to do with the chemical reaction that’s aerosolizing the product,” he said.
Hilary Brueck/The Insider