What’s Known and Not Known About the Mysterious Vaping Illness

More deaths, few clues, and a sense of emergency as e-cig use soars and the black market thrives

Robert Roy Britt
Published in
7 min readSep 20, 2019


A closeup photo of a man exhaling smoke from an electronic cigarette in Washington, DC on September 12, 2019.
Photo: Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty

AsAs the death toll from a respiratory illness tied to vaping reached eight last week and the number of total cases in the crisis climbed to 530 across 38 states, the mystery began to take on Hollywood qualities. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention activated its emergency operations center while scrambling to find a cause, or even just some clues, in a health crisis that has officials baffled. Unlike with salmonella or E. coli outbreaks, experts have no idea what substance is behind this public health nightmare.

States with reported cases of the mysterious vaping illness. Image: CDC

“I wish we had more answers,” Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, said in a press briefing. “We’re working closely with state and local health departments, FDA, and the clinical community to learn as much as we can to try to stop this outbreak.”

Here are some things that are known about the crisis, according to the CDC:

  • More than half the illnesses involve people under the age of 25, and 16% are younger than 18.
  • The overall age range of victims extends up to 65 years old.
  • Some 75% of the people afflicted are men.
  • The total number of cases includes both individuals with newly reported symptoms as well as some with previously identified sicknesses that are only now being counted as part of this outbreak.
  • Symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever, and abdominal pain.
  • Most of the patients report a history of vaping with products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound found in marijuana.
  • Some, but not all, of the patients report using e-cigs with nicotine.

Officials don’t yet know if the illnesses are tied to commercial vaping products or black market alternatives, let alone which substances might be the culprits. Schuchat…



Robert Roy Britt

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB