Vaping linked to eight cases of lung illness in Tarrant County

Eight cases of lung illness — believed to have been caused by vaping — have been reported in Tarrant County.

Health officials, who can’t release names or ages because of privacy restrictions, say these cases are being investigated by the state.

This investigation comes as educators, health specialists and parents locally and across the country grapple with how to stress to young people the dangers of vaping.

“One kid, one student, one youth vaping is too many,” said Anne Darr, a trustee on the Fort Worth school board. “It shouldn’t have to get to epidemic proportions before we pay attention.”

Vaping — which quickly became popular with youth across the country — is when a person inhales and exhales a chemical produced by some form of an e-cigarette.

E-cigarettes don’t produce tobacco smoke. Instead, they heat up nicotine and flavoring to create a vapor people inhale. Many of the “pods” used in e-cigarettes, also known as vape pens, contain more nicotine than cigarettes.

Around 400 cases of vaping-related lung illnesses have been reported in 36 states and the Virgin Islands. And six deaths have been reported from six states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As a result, President Donald Trump’s administration said this week it’s gearing up to ban the sales of flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine pods.

“We can’t allow people to get sick,” Trump said.

CDC officials have said they are investigating the nationwide outbreak of lung disease tied to the use of e-cigarettes.

Texas cases

In Texas, state health officials this week said they are investigating 29 reports of “severe” lung disease in youth and young adults who have said they use e-cigarettes. Seventeen of those cases are confirmed.

State health officials are asking doctors and health care providers to talk to young Texans who are having problems breathing and severe coughing about e-cigarettes.

“Vaping is not safe for kids, youth or young adults,” according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. “Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, an addictive chemical that can affect brain development in the teens and 20s.

“Using nicotine in adolescence can harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control.”

A 2018 Texas Youth Tobacco Survey showed that 13 percent of youth had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. And a national study last year showed that 20.8 percent of high school students across the country had reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

“The vaping concern has captured a lot of attention because for such a long time proponents of vaping touted it as a safer alternative to traditional tobacco use,” said John Haenes, chief operating officer at Challenge of Tarrant County.

Instead, communities are discovering it carries more dangers and it is affecting young people at a critical time in a youth’s brain development, Haenes said.

“Most kids when they are vaping, they are using nicotine,” he said.

Tarrant cases

Health department officials say there is no other information they can release about the Tarrant cases. But they note that the cases are being investigated by Department of State Health Services workers “who will determine their status.”

“Tarrant County Public Health will continue to provide DSHS with information to facilitate future investigations,” according to a statement from the county.

Locally, the story of Tryston Zohfeld of Weatherford, a 17-year-old who spent weeks at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, has been told as a cautionary tale about vaping.

Zohfeld, who vaped for three years, ended up in the hospital this summer, after an X-ray showed a blockage in his lungs.

He ended up in a medically induced coma, with a tube down his throat so a machine could do the breathing for him, after doctors determined he had respiratory failure caused by vaping.

Once he was released from the hospital, he vowed to never vape again.

Zohfeld is speaking out about vaping so that other people don’t end up in the hospital like him.

“I don’t mind being that one person it happened to as long as I know I can get other people to stop,” he said.

Educating communities

Challenge of Tarrant County, which works to fight substance abuse, has been helping educate families, teachers and community leaders about the dangers of vaping.

Last spring, the organization participated in forums held in several school districts, including one at Arlington Heights in Fort Worth.

“Everyone is having to get educated very, very quickly,” Haenes said, adding that families are grappling to understand the practice.

Vaping is a complicated topic that includes paraphernalia many adults can’t recognize. Haenes said parents often think they are looking a flash drive instead of a component for vaping.

The terminology involved isn’t simple either. Teens and adults are not often on the same page when discussing e-cigarettes. For example, Haenes said teens often refer to vaping as “Juuling,” a term that alludes to an electronic cigarette company.

The substances used for vaping are not just nicotine based. Young people are also using THC oil.

Schools leaders are trying to educate families and students before vaping lands young people in trouble.

Raul Perez, director of student discipline and placement for Fort Worth schools, said the mere possession of any tobacco product or device is not allowed on campus. He said adding THC to the mix can get young people in serious trouble because it is an illegal substance in Texas.

“Now, we are dealing with a potential criminal offense that can rise to the level of a felony offense,” Perez said.

Perez said THC oil and vaping appeared in Tarrant-area schools last school year.

“It just came on the scene out of nowhere last spring,” Perez said.

Now, news of deaths related to vaping is gaining national attention and raising new questions for communities, he said.

“What is being added to these oils? We don’t know,” Perez said. “That’s the other danger. The unknown factors.”

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.
Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.