Mysterious Vape Maladies

Explosions, Lung Disease, and Heart Failure – The Media’s Favorite Myths


Since the recent public outcry over the “vaping epidemic” facing the youth of America, we’ve all been inundated with horror stories about vaping, fed to us by a media apparatus hellbent on profiting from panic. From popcorn lung to exploding vapes, there’s a new one of these stories every day. Some of them grab a little more attention than others, however, and it’s worth diving into the details. A primary antidote to fear, after all, is information.


The Eight Wisconsin Teens

It’s a great time for vaping, where, on any given day, you can log on to your favorite news site and be greeted with histrionics regarding the latest “tragedy” as the “youth vaping epidemic” rages on. Last week, some kid’s vape blew up in his face. This week, we’re hearing about eight teenagers from Wisconsin who were allegedly hospitalized from vaping. If you’re a little skeptical about these latest headlines, your doubts are well-founded.


Let’s start by looking at how these cases are being reported before diving into the facts of each case. Picking a couple headlines at random, we’ve got: “Vape pens suspected of causing severe lung injuries in Wisconsin teens” and “Vaping linked to 8 teens treated for breathing issues, chest pain, hospital says”. Reading either of these headlines (or the several others out there), you would understandably be expecting some kind of concrete evidence within the actual body of the article. You would be wrong about that.


It’s important to also note how these headlines are phrased, as we go through the facts of this situation. In each headline, it is “vaping” as a whole which is blamed. There’s no effort made to specify what aspect of vaping is the problem, nor do they point to a specific brand or identify what these kids were alleged to have been vaping.


Here are the facts of the case, as reported by several news sources: Over the course of July, eight teenagers from different parts of Wisconsin have been admitted to the hospital. In each case, their complaints were shortness of breath, cough, and fatigue. Some of them were suffering from vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss as well.


Upon admission, each of these teens were given oxygen and treated with steroids, after which they recovered quickly and fully. The simplicity and speed of this treatment was fortunate as doctors had discovered weak heart functions and other potentially life-threatening complications in some of these patients.


So far, not a single mention of vaping, right? Well, that’s the thing. Each of these kids are allegedly vapers. And that’s basically it – that’s the entire connection. Eight kids are admitted for a severe condition with an unknown cause and the story very quickly becomes about their vaping. In fact, not a single article covering this phenomenon even mentioned the possibility that something else could be the cause.


Remember how we looked at those headlines drawing a clear and unequivocal connection between vaping and these teenagers’ conditions? Here’s a direct quote from the Fox article (the first headline above): “’While an exact cause is unknown, the number of patients in such a short time frame is concerning’”. It continues to say, “there isn’t a lot of information available about the… effects that vaping may have on teens, but [they] do know ‘vaping is dangerous’”.


The second point really gives the whole game away, succinctly summing up the entire anti-vaping position. “We don’t really know what it is, we don’t get it, so it simply has to be dangerous. If it weren’t dangerous, I’d be able to understand and get into it myself.” This is the exact same philosophy behind all kinds of regressive policymaking and thinking, and it has absolutely no place in print, politics, or the vaping discourse.


All of this is rendered moot, of course, by that first quote above. The doctors at the hospital are directly quoted as saying they do not know what caused this affliction in their patients. They knew how to treat the symptoms and get the kids feeling better, but they literally haven’t got a clue what caused it. They just assumed vaping was the culprit and called it a day.


To take things one step further, let’s just play devil’s advocate and assume it was vaping. By the FDAs own estimation, roughly 3.5 million teenagers are vaping. Of those 3.5 million, eight teenagers in Wisconsin – in the same month, no less – all get admitted to a hospital for the same symptoms, and we’re to believe that it is vaping in general which is to blame? Using these numbers, there’s a 1 in 400,000 likelihood for teenagers to catch this mystery sickness. But eight teenagers in the same area in the same month all come down with this incredibly rare malady? If it were actually a common side effect, we’d be hearing about teens across the nation winding up in the hospital – but we aren’t.

In fact, another doctor is quoted as saying, “the cases came on fairly rapidly and were considered acute rather than stemming from consistent use over time.” Pair this information with the fact that officials report being “unclear” on what the teens actually vaped and the teens’ own vagueness in interviews where they talk about vaping “THC and nicotine”, and we get a completely different picture from the headlines.


Now, let’s break down these facts. We have eight teens, in the same area, coming down with an acute illness possibly brought on by something they vaped rather than consistent vape use, and they are being a bit fuzzy on what they put in their vapes? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to piece this together. The kids were vaping some weird street stuff or god-knows-what-else and ended up completely screwing themselves up.


Yet again, it seems pretty clear vaping itself has nothing to do with this situation. Instead, some teens got cute and decided to vape something weird. Which would probably happen less if we just provided our youth with accurate information on vaping instead of bizarre scaremongering. In the meantime, don’t put anything in your vape that shouldn’t be there. And, for the love of God, don’t ever buy some homemade concoction on the street, particularly if the vendor claims it has some proprietary blend of drugs and stuff. Just buy vape juice like a normal person; it’s safer.


The Exploding Vape Phenomenon

Since the very beginning of vape popularity, we’ve been hearing stories of exploding vapes. In recent memory, the “exploding vape” has become almost an urban myth. Everyone seems to know a guy who has a friend whose vape blew up, but I’ve rarely met a person whose vape has actually exploded. Most vapers I’ve talked to have the same experience and chalk it up to one simple fact: vapers who know what they’re doing don’t have their kit explode in their face.


This “scary vaping story” is similar to the last one, in that these horror stories almost never happen to experienced vapers. People who take the time to learn the ropes don’t ever put anything in their vape that isn’t from a 100% reputable source. Likewise, a knowledgeable vaper would almost never have their vape blow up. So why is it that vapes can explode?


First thing to understand is that vapes are not any more likely to explode than any other battery powered electronics product. That having been said, cheap or poorly made batteries are a possible, although rare, cause of explosions, from vapes to cellphones. Cheap batteries may be attractive due to their low price point, but it’s never worth the risk. Always opt for high-quality batteries from reputable manufacturers.


The next, and probably most common, reason behind vape explosions is user error. Loose batteries, for example, can cause this issue. In fact, a lot of those headline-grabbing videos you see are actually loose batteries, not vapes, exploding. When a metal object connects the negative and positive poles of a battery, it can short-circuit, overhead, and, in some cases, explode. This is often caused by carrying a loose battery in your pocket with other metal objects.


Finally, if you’re using more advanced and complicated vaping setups, you really need to understand what you’re doing. Using batteries with insufficient amperage can cause an explosion, as well, especially in mechanical, or unregulated, mods without traditional safety features.


As you can see, by following certain protocols and general safety practices, you can fairly well inoculate yourself against most of the worst vaping scenarios. Which brings us to the incredibly disingenuous coverage surrounding each of these incidents. Let’s take the most recent story of a teenager in Nevada as an example. Apparently, a teenager in Nevada had his vape blow up directly in his face, cracking his jaw and breaking several teeth. He had to travel 250 miles to the nearest hospital where he underwent a couple surgeries. Ultimately, he recovered almost entirely sans a few teeth.


This kid suffered quite an ordeal, there’s no denying that. Having anything explode in your face sucks, surely, but what if the “potentially lethal” device in question were something different? Let’s say we’re talking about a car instead. A 17-year-old kid is driving, but he’s texting while driving. The outcome is that he drives into a pole and smashes his jaw and teeth up. The coverage in that story wouldn’t be about how all cars are deadly and dangerous. There wouldn’t be coalitions calling for the ban of all automobile sales in Nevada. But it’s the same thing, in the end.


Negligent use of a mechanical or electronic device can end with severe bodily harm. That’s all it is. Vapes manufactured by reputable companies simply do not blow up like a bomb. With the story of the Nevada teenagers, officials say the vape in question was not identified, but in nearly every other case, the vape in question is a mechanical mod. If you vape, there’s nothing surprising about this factoid: mechanical mods aren’t inherently more dangerous, but they do required some advanced knowledge to use safely.


As a beginner-intermediate vaper, I wouldn’t choose to use a mechanical mod. I haven’t put any time into learning about them, understanding any of the electrical principles behind batteries (Ohm’s Law, etc.), nor do I feel the need to go to that level yet. Furthermore, I know that these are the requisites for using a mech mod because it’s nearly impossible to miss when you’re looking at or talking about mech mods. Any vape shop employee will tell you right up front that mech mods are not for beginners. If you’re reading about them online, it’s always put there in black and white. If you don’t know what you’re doing with advanced vape devices, you can definitely hurt yourself.


As a society, this is a sentiment we’ve historically agreed with; if you’re messing with things you don’t understand and something bad happens, that’s on you. When my car exploded after years without changing its oil, nobody said, “Gee, cars sure are dangerous and unpredictable!” They told me that if I don’t understand basic vehicle maintenance, I probably shouldn’t be driving. So why, in this case, are we calling for the heads of vape manufacturers and threatening blanket bans across large swaths of the United States?


Simply put, vaping has already become public enemy #1 as parents everywhere are mortified and confused by seeing their teens pick up Juuls. The idea of putting an electronic nicotine-emitting device into your mouth is terrifying to people whose minds were collectively blown when The Wizard of Oz went from black-and-white to color. A single vape pen blowing up on video is simply too much for someone who thinks that music peaked with Led Zeppelin and buys their wardrobe on Facebook.


Sure, it’s fun to roast the boomers, but there’s truth behind this. If you actually take time to read beyond these tabloid-style headlines, you’ll see that the truth isn’t all that scary. You’ll see that vapes are like anything else, neither inherently bad and dangerous nor purely good and without risk. The problem is that the truth is buried beneath mountains of these headlines – and not one of them discuss it. Each of these articles seamlessly transition from [insert traumatic event here] to “parents everywhere are railing against Juul for murdering their children” without so much as an explanation of vape technology for due diligence’s sake.


It’s easy for people on the outside to get wrapped up in the hysteria. It’s incredibly easy to pull up security footage of some poor bastard getting their face blown off by a vape, but it’s a lot harder to find an article explaining the technical details of proper mechanical mod usage. Nobody wants to hear that and it doesn’t get the clicks.