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Vaping suspected in half a dozen cases at St. Luke’s of young Lehigh Valley adults with serious lung injuries

The Lehigh Valley is seeing the same mysterious and serious lung injuries among young e-cigarette users that have puzzled doctors across the country and prompted a federal health agency to issue a warning this week.

“The injury pattern seems to be the same. The lungs should look black, but they’re completely white out [from inflammation,]” said Dr. Livia Bratis, pulmonology medicine section chief at St. Luke’s University Health Network.

St. Luke’s says it has treated at least half a dozen e-cigarette users for severe lung injuries in the last three to four months, including one last week. The cases have prompted the network to send health workers and doctors to middle schools and high schools to warn students about the risks of vaping.

Lehigh Valley Health Network, the area’s largest health care provider, hasn’t seen any cases, a spokesman said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted an investigative notice on its website Wednesday, recommending e-cigarette users consider not using the products until the probe is completed and calling on doctors and health departments to report cases and findings to the CDC.

“This investigation is ongoing and has not identified a cause, but all reported cases have a history of using e-cigarette products,” the notice said.

Also Wednesday, President Donald Trump said his administration will propose banning most flavors used in vape pens. And Juul, a major e-cigarette distributor, posted a statement saying, “We strongly agree with the need for aggressive category-wide action on flavored products.”

The CDC is reviewing more than 450 cases of suspected vaping injuries in 33 states and has recorded six deaths — none in Pennsylvania. Doctors and researchers are scrambling to identify the cause. The CDC hasn’t found a specific substance or product linking all the cases, but noted the condition likely is associated with chemical exposure. It also said, “Many patients report using e-cigarette products with liquids that contain cannabinoid products, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).”

The Pennsylvania Health Department has recorded 17 suspected and 20 potential cases since it began tracking the illnesses on Aug. 15.Most have been men in their 20s, said Nate Wardle, a Health Department spokesman. The majority have had injuries serious enough to require hospitalization. The Health Department is working with Poison Control Centers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the CDC.

‘It came out of nowhere’

Connor Evans of Bethlehem Township was a regular e-cigarette user before falling mysteriously sick in May. He said he was admitted to St. Luke’s, where he was put on life support for about a week because his lungs filled up with blood and he couldn’t breathe without a machine.

Evans is 20 years old and had been using a vaping pen for about a year without any problems.

At first, he thought he had the flu. He was throwing up and dehydrated. A few days later, he went to the hospital because he was having trouble breathing.

“It came out of nowhere‚” he said.

Doctors suspected vaping, after ruling out other possible health problems, he said. Since then, Evans wants to warn others, to steer high school students from using e-cigarettes.

“You think it’s cool? It feels good? The nicotine high? But then you’re in the ICU and you see your parents crying,” he said. “That’s the worst.”

It’s possible that more patients are getting sick from using e-cigarettes than those, like Evans, who were admitted to hospitals, said Bratis, the St. Luke’s doctor. Some may have milder symptoms and haven’t sought care.

According to the CDC, some patients developed symptoms such as coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath and nausea over a few days, while symptoms developed more slowly in others.

Bratis worries that patients with these symptoms mainly have been young adults. She suspects that it’s because e-cigarette companies market to youngsters.

“It’s blueberry or mango, or it’s for relaxation,” she said. “It’s almost criminal.”

Vapor Galleria, an e-cigarette store in South Whitehall Township, released a statement Wednesday urging caution among the public. CEO Ed Williams warned that a ban on vape products would hurt local economies and encourage users to seek the same product on the streets.

He also took issue with the media, saying they have downplayed the fact that “over the past 10 years, there are now more than 10 million adults who have taken up vaping, and yet there have only been a handful of lung-related problems associated with vaping.”

Raymond Reed, store manager at Vapor Galleria, said the medical concerns have elicited questions from customers but haven’t affected sales.

The CDC recommends that youths, young adults and pregnant women avoid vaping products. For those using e-cigarette products, the CDC urges that they don’t modify them, add substances that weren’t intended by the manufacturer or buy them off the street.

For smokers trying to quit cigarettes — the e-cigarette industry’s target audience — the CDC does not recommend vaping, but suggests “evidence-based treatments, including counseling and FDA-approved medications.”

Binghui Huang/The Morning Call