Health department on alert after possible vaping-related disease reports

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COLUMBIA- The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is monitoring cases of lung disease related to people who vape or use e-cigarettes.

This comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report of nearly 200 cases of lung illness and one death, in 22 states, all potentially related to vaping.

According to a newsletter from the CDC, patients affected had symptoms like cough, shortness of breath and fatigue. Symptoms worsened over the days or weeks before patients went to the hospital, and all patients reported vaping in the weeks or months before visiting the hospital.

Jacob James is the manager of Retro Active Alternative Smoke Shop in Columbia. He said part of the problem is when people buy products from unregulated sources.

When customers buy cartridges and other products from friends or illegal businesses, James said, it can increase the risk of someone unknowingly ingesting dangerous substances.

"There is no regulation in that market," James said. "Not necessarily the legal market, but in the clandestine market where we just don't know what's in the cartridges because nobody's regulating that."

The CDC newsletter also reported many of the patients affected by illness had used products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, they are not pointing to any specific product or ingredient as a definitive cause across all cases yet.

Dr. Joy Sweeney, executive director of the Council for Drug Free Youth in Jefferson City, said she's not surprised by the report, because it's not new information. What is new, she said, is the possibility of illnesses related to vaping.

She's working to spread the word about the potential new realities caused by this habit.

"We're doing everything we possibly can to educate people," Sweeney said.

Sweeney said, in Cole County, the number of young people vaping and using cigarettes has increased in the past several years. She said these statistics are "alarming" because of how much work has been done to stigmatize smoking and nicotine usage.

James said the CDC report has not changed the way he feels about vaping or smoking. He said it's important for people to make their own choices, as long as they are educated beforehand.

"You should read as much literature as you can about the scientific methods behind the stuff, and use the safest methods that you can to smoke your tobacco," he said.

Sweeney said her organization will continue to work to keep substances out of the hands of young people.

"This is a challenge, especially for young people," she said. "The younger you start using things like this, the more harmful it's going to be."

The CDC said its next steps will be to work with state health departments to provide assistance in following the issue and testing causes.