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21 Cases of Lung Disease Linked to Vaping Cannabis Bought on Street

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A man blows vapor from an e-cigarette at a vape lounge in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For the past few months, doctors in Kings County, in California's Central Valley, saw a small but higher than normal number of patients with lung disease. At first, patients presented with characteristics of pneumonia or bronchitis, like weakness or shortness of breath. But when placed on standard antibiotic treatment, they did not improve.

After their health further deteriorated, doctors determined that patients instead had a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome, and the cause was something surprising, said Kings County public health officer Dr. Milton Teske.

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"The only connecting factor that tied them all together was a history of vaping THC or CBD or some combination of that," Teske said, referring to compounds in marijuana. THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis, while CBD, or cannabidiol, is a component being promoted to ease various conditions, from anxiety to epilepsy.

More significantly, all the vaping products were purchased on the street from unlicensed vendors.

The current rash of illnesses have not just happened in the Central Valley, where there was a cluster of eight cases, but also around the state. Officials at the California Department of Public Health have identified 21 cases statewide of what could potentially be "acute lung disease." These cases are also linked to vaping illicit cannabis products.

While the Department of Public Health could not provide information about patient demographics, Dr. Teske said the eight patients in his region were young and previously healthy.


Teske said some cases were so severe that patients were intubated and placed on a ventilator in the intensive care unit of their hospital. Patients improved after high doses of intravenous steroids. Teske said without hospitalization, however, some of the cases would have been fatal.

In an email, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health wrote that the agency is "working with local public health departments, other state departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to gather more information on patients, and on products and substances used."

The Department is urging people to avoid vaping cannabis products sold by unlicensed vendors.

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