Why is vaping sickening and killing people? Experts don’t know yet.

Scientists are scrambling to figure out more about the vaping illness that has sickened roughly 1,300 and killed at least 29 in the U.S.

Some experts are looking to see whether oily chemicals added to vaping liquids are causing illness. Others are studying whether vaping damages the cells that line the lungs.

An October 11, 2019 Nature article that listed efforts by various scientists mentioned the work of two researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Quan Lu, associate professor of environmental genetics and pathophysiology, plans to examine which genes are switched on or off in lung cells of people who use vaping products. Doctoral candidate Yulin Hswen will look at whether an uptick in black-market cartridges for vaping fluids is related to the lung illnesses.

David Christiani, Elkan Blout Professor of Environmental Genetics, told Nature that researchers may never find a single cause for the outbreak, but that even narrowing it down—for example, to a process that uses oils to dilute THC in vaping liquids—could help save lives. “We have a very serious epidemic and we absolutely need to get that under control,” he said. “Then that will allow us to go back to focusing on chronic effects of vaping.”

Christiani was also interviewed about vaping illnesses on October 6 on WCAI’s Living Lab Radio. “The one thing that’s consistent in all the pathology reports…is the not-consistent picture,” he said. He discouraged any vaping until the cause of the illness is uncovered.

Read the Nature article: Scientists chase cause of mysterious vaping illness as death toll rises

Listen to David Christiani’s Living Lab Radio interview

Learn more

Opinion: Vaping-related ‘epidemic’ demands urgent response (Harvard Chan School news)

Epidemic of vaping injuries sparks public health concerns (Harvard Chan School feature)