Lab in Albany first in U.S. to find potential cause of vaping-related illness

Special Reports

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — When the vaping epidemic turned fatal, the first lab in the country to identify a possible cause for the problem happened to be in Albany. What they found was alarming, particularly in vape pens being sold on the black market with THC in them.  NEWS10 ABC got a rare glimpse inside the facility where the discovery was made.

Deep within the recesses of the Corning Tower sits the New York State Public Health lab known as the Wadsworth Center. Victoria Derbyshire, the Deputy Director of Wadsworth, granted NEWS10 access inside.

“We do the testing other places can’t do,” she explained.  “We are here when there is an emergency.”

The emergency in these last few months has been figuring out why adults and young teenagers were getting very sick after vaping products with colorful names like Sour Patch and Runts, among many others.

“They are kept here in a safe, ” Derbyshire showed.

Vaping, once thought to be safer than smoking cigarettes, proving to be deadly in some cases, and soon, the samples started coming into the Wadsworth Center. More than 250 of them were received, products that patients had used. The team was tasked to pinpoint the ingredient inside making people severely sick.

Derbyshire explained how they tested for something when very little was known about what the scientists were looking for.

“You need to do an untargeted process. So we say, ‘what’s in here?'”

They used very expensive equipment and had the smartest people in the room analyze the data.

“It’s a high caliber, highly skilled operation.  It’s not easy testing,” Derbyshire added.

From a safe room, down a long corridor, and into another lab where scientists weigh out the samples, spin it at high speeds, and load it on to a mass spectrometer, which is a half-million dollar machine that is super sensitive.  

As the sample goes through, the different chemicals are separated. Derbyshire shared their findings: “We found, yes, many of the vape pens had THC. They were marijuana based, many of them had nicotine. Many of the THC containing products had another component.”

That mystery ingredient turned out to be vitamin E acetate.

“It’s viscous as you can see,” Derbyshire remarked as she showed NEWS10. “This sample has two peaks. This is THC, and this is vitamin E acetate.”

It’s an ingredient that’s mainly used as a thickener in this case.

“These levels of vitamin E acetate is really pretty high, and the level of THC is often very low, which is consistent with it being diluted and makes it go further and try to sell more products.”

The team at the Wadsworth Center shared their findings nationally as patients who had vaped were being treated for serious lung illnesses.

“Vitamin E acetate and other substances are oils. Oils do not belong in the lung. That’s as simple as I can put it,” stated Dr. Robert Kaslovsky, a pediatric pulmonologist at Albany Medical Center.  

One of his youngest patients is 14-years old.

“The kids we’ve seen — seven or eight of them — happen to be in their crisis mode. They are really short of breath gasping for air and really low oxygen levels,” he said.

Dr. Koslavsky showed NEWS10 what a normal lung scan should look like.

“In the particular kids we saw, we saw lots of these patches of white, and that represents inflammation. Perhaps mucus in lungs.  That’s what makes it hard to get the air in and out.”

Their treatment usually involved getting them on oxygen and steroids and getting them to stop using the product.  

“A couple of the kids we see, when I asked where they get their vaping, they buy it in school and who knows what’s in it,” Dr. Koslavsky remarked.

Back at the Wadsworth Center, the testing continues as the smoke has yet to clear around vaping.

“We continue to test and see, gosh, what else is out there. Is this going to be a market that evolves? Are the people making these vape pens gonna move on to making it with something else?”

At the New York State Capitol, this session, the state legislature will consider a proposal to ban flavored e-liquids. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also included a ban on flavored products in his budget this year.

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