Two Denfeld High School students were taken to the emergency room on consecutive days this week after vaping THC and overdosing, an assistant principal said Friday.
Marcia Nelson said one of the students was taken to the ER by his mother on Wednesday; the second was taken by ambulance on Thursday morning. Both reported excruciating headaches.
Information on the condition of the students wasn’t immediately available Friday night.
The disturbing reports come just as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that the number of vaping-related lung injuries had grown to 805 in 46 states and one U.S. territory. To date, 12 deaths have been recorded, including one in Minnesota.
Danette Seboe, Duluth East principal, said on Friday that there hadn’t been any vaping-related overdoses at East so far this school year. But staff at East are confiscating “THC delivery systems” almost daily, she said during a panel discussion at the Essentia Health Fall Conference at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
“They come in higher than they would have if they had done something traditional to get high,” Seboe said.
Steve Battaglia, principal at Cloquet High School, said in a phone interview that two students overdosed on vaped THC on the same day during the past school year. Both had to be taken from the school by ambulance.
Although the students reported they had vaped THC, Battaglia said that since there’s no legitimate source for the product, they might unknowingly have been breathing an entirely different substance.
Such incidents haven’t been repeated so far this school year. Responding to vaping in general took all of his assistant principal’s time last spring and much of his, Battaglia said. So far this school year, they’ve seen much less vaping.
Another place that’s not seeing a lot of vaping is Lifehouse, which provides housing and services to at-risk youth in Duluth. Erich Lutz, the agency’s program director, said there had been one vaping overdose on First Street outside of Lifehouse some time ago, but in general his staff isn’t seeing it.
But Duluth East has seen no drop in use, in spite of a vigorous campaign to call attention to the dangers of youth vaping.
After an “explosion” in use last fall, “we have not seen a drop in use” this school year, Seboe said during the panel discussion.
In a survey of 11th-grade students in the Duluth school system, more than a third said they had vaped within the past 30 days, Seboe reported. But it’s higher than that at East, she said. “We did an in-house survey last year, and that number was more than half (of the students).”
Amanda Casady, tobacco control program manager for the American Lung Association in Duluth, said the continuing high numbers are the norm in the region.
“In just these last few weeks since school has started, I have heard from numerous principals and teachers and parents just what a nightmare this epidemic continues to be,” Casady said in an interview.
Teens in the Northland are taking advantage of new products to help them vape surreptitiously, Casady said. Those include hoodies in which the strings are actually vaping devices and a product that mimics an Apple watch but becomes a tiny vaping device when a button is pushed.
One of the challenges is the addictive nature of vaping, a St. Luke’s hospital pediatrician said.
“The devices with nicotine are way more addictive than traditional cigarettes,” Dr. Amanda Webb said in an interview. “I think the really hard part is that they’re addicted, basically, immediately. And then the traditional ways that we have to stop it, if it’s a quit line or counseling or medication, these aren’t working for vaporized nicotine products.”
The CDC’s report on Friday said its latest findings “suggest products containing THC play a role in the (lung illness) outbreak.” Its data show that about 77% of the patients reported using products that contained THC. The CDC recommends that people “consider refraining from using e-cigarette, or vaping, products, particularly those containing THC.”
Irina Stepanov, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health whose specialties include tobacco chemistry and toxicology, said in an interview that the high numbers of cases that involve THC couldn’t be dismissed. But, she added, “There is a danger in saying that cannabis is the most likely reason. The actual culprit might have nothing to do with cannabis.”
Stepanov suggested that those who continue to use e-cigarettes should at least get them from a legitimate retailer and shouldn’t modify them.
But medical professionals interviewed for this story said they don’t see any safe use for e-cigs, even among adults.
“There was an illusion that the vaping was less harmful, but nicotine is still in there, and it’s still addictive,” Webb said. “And it’s still causing what we call end organ damage, if it’s your heart or your lungs. … And in children, it’s their brains.”
Even adults who want to give up smoking shouldn’t turn to vaping, said Dr. Sarah Manney, an Essentia Health pediatrician who participated in Friday’s panel.
“Absolutely not,” Manney said in an interview. “We have FDA-supported nicotine assistant devices to help you quit, along with behavioral counseling.”
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This video, featuring area high school students, was produced as part of Essentia Health's "Don't Blow It: Anti-vaping campaign.