HARRISBURG — As many as 37 suspected cases of illness linked to vaping are under investigation by the state Department of Health, a department official said Monday.

All of the cases came to light in the last month, said Nate Wardle, a Department of Health spokesman.

“The vast majority” of the cases suspected of being linked to vaping involved cases in which the individual was vaping marijuana products, Wardle said.

In 17 of the cases, investigators suspect the illness was linked to vaping, Wardle said. In the other 20 cases, investigators think it’s possible vaping was involved, but those investigations aren’t as far along as the other cases.

The first case of illness linked to vaping in Pennsylvania was reported Aug. 15, Wardle said.

No deaths have been linked to the vaping illness outbreak in Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Five deaths have been linked to lung-illness related to vaping in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Oregon, according to the CDC.

“A health alert was distributed statewide on Aug. 16 to alert medical providers on what to look for,” Wardle said.

Most of the people sickened by vaping have been males in their late teens or early 20s, he said. Wardle said he couldn’t provide locations for the cases. Some of the cases have been publicized in the media.

Among them:

• Kevin Boclair, a 19-year-old Bloomsburg University student, was being treated for a vaping-related illness at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, according to CBS 3 in Philadelphia.

• The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat reported a 16-year-old boy, Caleb Herdman, was hospitalized for 17 days with vaping-related lung illness.

Lung illnesses linked to vaping have been reported in Pennsylvania and 32 other states, according to the CDC.

State officials don’t think the marijuana was obtained from the state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries, Wardle said.

“It is important to note that our medical marijuana program products are closely regulated through a tracking system and also through the inspection of products at approved laboratories,” Wardle said. “Our initial investigation is ongoing, however, the initial findings indicate that the reported THC-product used by patients has not been linked to legally-obtained THC.”

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive compound in marijuana, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which put out a warning about the vaping illnesses on Friday.

The initial findings in Pennsylvania “are in line with what other states have found,” Wardle said.

The FDA reported that most of those tested samples with THC contained significant amounts of Vitamin E acetate. Vitamin E acetate is a substance present in topical consumer products or dietary supplements, but data about its effects after inhalation are limited, according to the FDA.

While investigators have not officially concluded that Vitamin E acetate is the cause of the lung injury in these cases, health officials are warning people to avoid inhaling this substance, according to the FDA. Because consumers cannot be sure whether any THC vaping products may contain Vitamin E acetate, consumers are urged to avoid buying vaping products on the street, according to the FDA.

The current cluster of pulmonary illnesses linked to vaping is very concerning, said Jennifer Folkenroth, national senior director for tobacco for the American Lung Association.

"The only thing you should be inhaling into your lungs is clean air” or medication if it’s prescribed by a doctor, she said.

In Pennsylvania, tobacco products and e-cigarettes can be purchased at the age of 18. The Lung Association is lobbying to get the state to increase the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 to make it harder for young people to get their hands on it, Folkenroth said.

With the current age limit, younger high school students can get tobacco products from older teens too easily, she said.

Senate Bill 473 would raise the age to buy tobacco products and e-cigarettes, she said.

The legislation was voted out of the Senate judiciary committee in June but hasn’t received a floor vote. Advocates plan to launch a campaign later this month to draw more attention to the bill, Folkenroth said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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