Adam Hergenreder’s vaping habit nearly killed him.
Late last month, the 18-year-old student-athlete in Gurnee, Illinois, was hospitalized after consuming e-cigarettes for more than a year and a half. Doctors told him that now his lungs are similar to those of a 70-year-old adult.
“It was scary to think about that — that little device did that to my lungs,” Adam states, remembering the news from his doctors about his lung health.
Adam is one of the hundreds of e-cigarette users in the United States who have been sickened with mysterious vaping-related lung illnesses, many of them are young people. Up till now, investigators haven’t identified the cause of the illnesses. Amid demands for more regulation, the Trump administration now plans to remove flavored e-cigarettes except tobacco flavor from the marketplace.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a video statement on Wednesday, “Why is that important? We are seeing an absolute surge in high school and middle school kids using these flavored products. Mint, menthol, fruit flavor, alcohol flavor, bubble gum.”
The US Food and Drug Administration announced on Wednesday that more than a quarter of high school students this year have reported using e-cigarettes and the “overwhelming majority” reference using popular fruit and menthol or mint flavors, according to preliminary data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey.
Adam, who vaped nicotine and THC products, said he isn’t sure his lungs will ever be back at 100% — and he worries whether he will ever be able to wrestle again.
Adam said, “I was a varsity wrestler before this and I might not ever be able to wrestle because that’s a very physical sport and my lungs might not be able to hold that exertion. … It’s sad. We must act swiftly’.
There are more than 450 possible cases of lung illness associated with using e-cigarettes across the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has called this an “outbreak.” Health officials have also confirmed six deaths — in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Oregon, and Kansas — in connection to vaping-related lung illnesses.
While the illnesses and deaths have occurred in both young people and older adults, experts have warned of a rise in vaping among youth.
Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Ned Sharpless said in the announcement, “We must act swiftly against flavored e-cigarette products that are especially attractive to children”.
He added that the FDA will take additional steps to address youth use of tobacco-flavored products still on the market if young people begin to use them.
He explained, “The tremendous progress we’ve made in reducing youth tobacco use in the US is jeopardized by this onslaught of e-cigarette use. Nobody wants to see children becoming addicted to nicotine, and we will continue to use the full scope of our regulatory authority thoughtfully and thoroughly to tackle this mounting public health crisis.”
Separate surveys also suggest that most teens think e-cigarettes are safe.
Adam certainly thought vaping was safe when he started using e-cigarettes, he said.
He recalled, ‘It tasted good and it gave a little head high. I first started vaping just to fit in, because everyone else was doing it,” adding that the flavors appealed to him, especially mango.
He added, “It didn’t taste like a cigarette. It tasted good and provided a little buzz due to the nicotine”.
The vaping began about a year and a half ago, he confessed, and he would pick up e-cigarette products, such as those of the Juul brand, from his neighborhood gas station.
“They didn’t card me,” he remarked.
Adam’s mother, Polly Hergenreder shared, “He would wake up in the morning and would puff on that Juul and then cough. He would hit it several times throughout the day. My son was going through a pod and a half every other day, or a day and a half.”
Experts say that one Juul pod — a cartridge of nicotine-rich liquid that users plug into the dominant e-cig brand — delivers the same amount of nicotine to the body like a pack of cigarettes.
“That’s smoking a lot of cigarettes,” Polly claimed.
Eventually, Adam said that he went from vaping over-the-counter e-liquids to vaping THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the main psychoactive component of marijuana. Adam would obtain the THC from “a friend” or dealer.
Over time, Adam recalled that he developed shivers and couldn’t control them. Then, the vomiting began.
He said, “I was just nonstop throwing up every day for three days. Finally I went to the pediatrician.”
At first, doctors did not link Adam’s symptoms to his vaping. He was administered anti-nausea medication, but that did not stop his vomiting. After visiting various physicians, he finally met someone who asked if he was “Juul-ing” and using THC.
Adam said, “I answered honestly. I said I was.”
The medical team overseeing Adam’s care performed a CT scan of his stomach and observed something unusual about the lower portion of his lungs. The doctors then took an X-ray of his lungs.
Adam said about vaping, “That’s when they saw the full damage. If I had known what it was doing to my body, I would have never even touched it, but I didn’t know. I wasn’t educated.”
Adam was finally admitted to the hospital in late August.
Dr. Stephen Amesbury, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Illinois, who was one of the doctors who saw Adam, said, “If his mom had not brought him to the hospital within the next two to three days, his breathing could have worsened to the point that he could have died if he didn’t seek medical care. It was severe lung disease, especially for a young person. He was short of breath, he was breathing heavily. It was very concerning that he would have significant lung damage and possibly some residual changes after he heals from this.”
His mother spent the following six days in the hospital with her son, who was connected to IVs and was breathing through nasal tubes.
Polly said, “The doctors did tell us that if we did not bring Adam in when we brought him in, his lungs would have collapsed and he would have died. You should always try to find the silver lining,” and for her family, that is to use Adam’s experience to educate others about the risks of vaping.
Adam is now back home from the hospital and “it’s still difficult to even do normal activities, like going upstairs. I still get winded from that,” he admits.
Although he is still recovering and doing breathing treatments, Adam has determined to share his story. He said that through his advocacy, he has convinced some of his friends to stop vaping.
He said, “I’m getting better each day. I don’t want to see anybody in my situation. I don’t want to see anybody in the hospital for as long as I was.”
Health officials state that Vitamin E chemical is ‘key focus’ in vaping illness investigation.
The federal investigation into the connection between vaping and severe lung illnesses is continuing and has not yet identified a cause, but all reported cases have shown the use of e-cigarette products and some patients have informed about using e-cigarettes containing cannabinoid products, such as THC.
Separate investigations are being conducted in separate states.
Last week, New York health officials said that extremely high levels of the chemical vitamin E acetate were detected in nearly all cannabis-containing vaping products that were analyzed during the investigation. At least one vape product holding this chemical has been linked to each person who fell ill and provided a product for testing in the state.
Laboratory tests at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center in Albany exposed “very high levels” of vitamin E acetate in the cannabis-containing samples, the state health department announced.
The New York Department of Health said Vitamin E acetate is now “a key focus” of the state’s investigation into the illnesses. Some products that have been found to contain vitamin E acetate are candy-flavored vapes.
Juul has upheld that its earlier stand that their products are intended to convert adult smokers to what it labeled in the past as a less-harmful alternative. In other communications, the company states that it cannot make claims its products are safer, in line with FDA regulations.
Scientists highlight that they are still learning about the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes. One study published in the May edition of Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that e-cigarette flavors can damage the cells lining your blood vessels and maybe your heart health down the line. Another study, published this August in the journal Radiology, found that vaping temporarily impacts blood vessel function in healthy people. For example, MRI scans showed the changes in blood flow within the femoral artery in the leg after just one use. The researchers couldn’t determine exactly which chemical might be responsible for the changes they observed.
According to Amesbury, there are many questions that remain to be answered.
He said, “We’re very early in the stages of finding out what problems may come up from vaping. We’re finding these acute, severe illnesses now, but there really isn’t enough vaping history to say what’s going to happen 10, 20, 30 years down the road.”