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Pierce County Army vet battles vaping illness as outbreak continues

Vaping continues to cause problems in Washington State. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Chuck Wilcoxen is a Pierce County Army Veteran and police officer, who started vaping THC — an ingredient in marijuana — in 2018, to cope with a back injury he sustained while deployed to Baghdad.

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He says he wanted to ease the pain, without taking addictive opioids, or smoking pot.

“The fact of the matter was, you know, my father passed away in 2014 of lung cancer. He was a heavy smoker for years, and years and years,” he noted. “And I never wanted to pick up a cigarette — I never wanted to pick up anything I actually had to smoke.”

So, he began vaping a couple of times a week.

After vaping one night in September, he woke up with what he thought were flu-like symptoms.

“I was really short of breath I couldn’t walk ten steps without having to catch my breath,” he described.

He says he felt like he was suffocating.

“That’s exactly what you’re doing,” said King County Public Health Doctor, Jeff Duchin.

“When people say they can’t breath or you’re short of breath, it’s because not enough air is getting in,” he continued. “So it’s a type of suffocation that’s due to a chemical reaction that’s happening at the lung level.”

But it’s not clear exactly what is causing the hundreds of vaping related lung illnesses, and at least a dozen deaths nationwide.

One theory is that THC oil or a chemical called vitamin E acetate is coating and clogging the lungs.

The chemicals, themselves, may also be the culprits.

“You know vape smoke and these solutions contain over sixty toxins that can damage the lungs,” Duchin pointed out.

In a recent study in the New England Journal of medicine, doctors at the Mayo Clinic found some patients who vaped suffered chemical burns.

One of the researchers told The New York Times the lung injuries resembled those of someone exposed to mustard gas during World War I.

“My hunch is that there’s probably more than one issue that we’re looking at there’re probably more than one ingredient, one factor that’s involve in damaging the lungs,” said Duchin.

And critically, while some patients bought products on the black market, others like Wilcoxen insist they only went to state-licensed stores.

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“You expect when something is put on the market like that in a legal manner, you expect it to be safe,” he said. “You expect what you’re getting is a safe product. It turns out that wasn’t the case.”

Wilcoxen says doctors diagnosed him with lipoid pneumonia as a result of vaping.

He is suing several vape manufacturers and distributors. But again, doctors say it is unclear what specifically is causing these lung injuries.

After four days in a hospital, Wilcoxen was released.

“And still to this day I’m on heavy steroids and antibiotics, he said. “And I still have follow-up appointments with pulmonology to track how this goes, because we don’t know the long term effects.”

We also don’t know how many more people will become ill.

“We’re probably looking at the tip of the iceberg,” said Duchin.

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