Amid vaping illness outbreak, DIY vapers take matters into their own hands

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COLUMBIA - Michael Demkowicz had tried everything to quit smoking.

The patch. The pill. The gum. Nothing worked — until he tried vaping.

“As I started using it more and more, you know, I became less reliant on cigarettes,” Demkowicz said.

The “smoking sensation” that vaping provides helped Demkowicz quit smoking by slowly weaning himself off nicotine. By mixing his own vape liquids, he was able to put less and less nicotine in his vapes and eventually reach zero nicotine intake. He has since stopped vaping altogether.

According to the CDC, nationally there have been over 2,000 illnesses and 42 deaths due to vape-related lung disease. In Missouri, two individuals have died, and 35 have been diagnosed.

Demkowicz and other DIY vapers have taken matters into their own hands by mixing their own e-liquids for their vapes. They said this is safer because they know exactly what ingredients end up in their bodies.

“You know, nothing's great to put in your body that's not supposed to be there,” Demkowicz said. “You know, inhaling something is not necessarily healthy. But vaping is insanely healthier than smoking.”

Meanwhile, health officials are advising people to stop vaping altogether. Although vitamin E acetate has been linked to this lung illness, the CDC says it still cannot rule out other ingredients may still be the cause. According to the CDC, the patients diagnosed with the illness present symptoms like cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain. They also report fatigue, fever, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

Leah Martin, the director of advocacy at the American Lung Association in Missouri, said that any chemical substance that is inhaled causes irreversible damage to the lungs.

“We believe that any substance, any kind of dangerous, or chemical substance, inhaled to the lungs causes lung damage,” Martin said.

Sarah Varvaro, a health educator from the Boone County Public Health Department, said people don’t realize how harmful and addictive nicotine is, especially in people under 25 years old.

E-cigarettes sold commercially can be bought with nicotine or without.

“A Juul pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes,” Varvaro said. “And so when people are going through multiple pods a day, and then however many per week, they'll typically be getting more nicotine than they would be if they were to be using regular cigarettes.”

Varvaro said the Department of Public Health is working on ways to educate teens about the issue. The department sends a nurse to educate fifth-graders on the risks of e-cigarettes. Additionally, they started a social media campaign targeting 13-21 year-olds called the “Stand Up for Your Health” campaign which warns against the use of e-cigarettes.

Martin said the American Lung Association in Missouri is also launching a campaign aimed at teens to combat the issue and help prevent teen vape usage.

Demkowicz, though, feels that the benefits of vaping outweigh the alternative, even with the uncertainty of the ingredients. He does not mix vitamin E acetate in his vape liquids.

“Maybe one day in the future, we might — just like with cigarettes — you might learn that one of the ingredients causes this, but there's only four,” Demkowicz said. “So, the odds of having four chemicals cause something bad severely outweighs cigarettes, which have horrible ingredients.”