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Vaping showing up in schools

3 hospitalized last month in Illinois with severe breathing problems

A man smokes an electronic cigarette April 23, 2014, in Chicago.
A man smokes an electronic cigarette April 23, 2014, in Chicago.

A device marketed as a way to help adults kick their smoking habits has made its way into minors’ backpacks and school bathrooms and could be causing serious lung damage, officials said.

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced last month the hospitalization of three young people who experienced severe breathing problems after vaping. Wisconsin saw an additional 11 confirmed cases of severe heart disease among adolescents.

McHenry County is among those areas noticing an uptick in the use of vaping products and e-cigarettes, as well as the breathing problems that seem to follow, said Laura Crain, the drug-free program coordinator at McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition.

“In general, we’ve seen respiratory issues ranging anywhere from blistered lungs to decreased ability to take in air,” Crain said. “Potentially, we saw one case of popcorn lung.”

Popcorn lung is a respiratory disease caused by inhaling diacetyl – a chemical found in butter flavoring and vape juices – some of which contains up to 91% THC. Although diacetyl is safe to ingest, inhaling it has been known to cause irreversible lung damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In that regard, the term “vaping” has a tendency to mislead consumers into thinking of e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to traditional smoking. Although it’s true that some vaping products are nicotine-free, other ingredients found in the juice consumers inhale as vapor make the habit more akin to “aerosoling,” Crain said.

“It’s more like sucking in hairspray,” she said.

By design, e-cigarettes tend to be small, discreet and free of ashes and cigarette odor. Their inconspicuous appearance and enticing fruity flavors are alluring to juveniles, who might not understand the risks that come along with vaping, said Carlene Cardosi, the regional administrator Rosecrance.

“I think that they know that it’s not good for them, but they don’t have the developmental skills to understand the ramifications,” Cardosi said.

Some of those ramifications include visual and auditory hallucinations, increased anxiety, depression symptoms and unusual erratic behavior, Cardosi said.

“With adolescents, we haven’t seen as many physical complications, but we have seen an uptick in the behavioral health issues,” she said.

Research about the side effects of vaping isn’t where it needs to be for health professionals to say whether it’s a safe alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes, said Judy Pasternack, a nurse at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital.

“I don’t know all the facts because they’re just not there yet,” Pasternack said. “People need to know that it’s not as simple as, ‘This is only vapor, and it’s safe.’ I think there’s so much we don’t know yet.”

What Pasternack can rely on, however, is what health professional already know about nicotine and how juvenile consumption can prime the brain for addictive behavior, she said.

“You’re creating pathways in the brain – in an adolescent brain that’s not totally developed – toward addiction,” Pasternack said.

One 5%-strength Juul pod is designed to be equivalent to one pack of cigarettes – both in the use a consumer gets out of it and in nicotine strength, according to Juul’s website. But Juul pods come at a fraction of the cost. Between the low cost and discreet design, e-cigarettes are increasingly easier for adolescents to sneak into school with, McHenry County Health Department Vaping Coalition spokeswoman Chloe Cavida said.

“It’s making its way into their hands a couple different ways. ... A lot of kids are saying they’re getting it from other friends, some are taking it from parents,” Cavida said.

McHenry High School District 156 administrators confiscated vaping products on 36 different occasions at McHenry High School – West Campus during the first semester of the 2018-19 school year. That’s compared with 18 similar incidents during the entire 2017-18 school year, officials said.

The products are showing up in middle schools, too, although at lower rates, according to statistics from the McHenry Police Department.

Schools throughout the county have tried to combat vaping in different ways. Prairie Grove School District 46 recently installed vapor and motion-detecting sensors in the school bathrooms while Marlowe Middle School Principal Tony Venetico said he is taking a more educational approach by teaching students about the potential health and behavioral risks. So far, Venetico’s educational efforts seem to be prompting more students to report vaping on campus, he said.

“They’re coming not to tattle, not to get the person in trouble,” Venetico said. “They’re coming really from a place of concern because of the educational resources we have.”

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