BYRON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — West Michigan teenagers are vaping in school hallways, bathrooms and even classrooms, and health care providers fear devastating long-term consequences.
“We all know people who vape,” Byron Center High School senior Olivia Coaster told 24 Hour News 8 Thursday. “It’s pretty big in our school.”
Byron Center is far from alone. A national, government-funded survey showed 37 percent of high seniors said they have vaped in the last 12 months.
Coaster and three other BCHS students, all anti-vapers, talked to 24 Hour News 8 about the exploding trend.
“It’s probably the most prevalent way to be cool in today’s society. It’s sad,” junior Andrew Agius said.
“They go in the bathroom during school and try to do it,” Coaster said. “Kids are doing it in class and they try to hide it.”
Vaping devices are easy to conceal these days. Some resemble flash drives and highlighters, and they emit a slight scent that matches their flavoring, from candy to fruit and bubble gum.
But don’t be fooled, says the health care industry, as well as the U.S. surgeon general, Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is a deadly cocktail,” said Dave Stults, who shared his message with Byron Center High School students and parents at Byron Center’s Van Singel Fine Arts Center Thursday afternoon. “You don’t know what you’re putting in your lungs. You’ve been lied to by a very sophisticated marketing engine. … You cannot ingest this stuff, particularly into your lungs, without there being a price. It will come to harvest. It has to.”
Stults himself contracted irreversible lung disease from long-term exposure to diacetyl, a chemical often found in vapes with creamy or buttery-based flavors.
“I used to really enjoy microwave butter-flavored popcorn,” explained Stults, who ate microwave popcorn daily for years. “I really enjoyed opening the bag and sniffing the vapors, but the vapors were where the diacetyl chemicals were.”
When he suddenly began experiencing excessive shortness of breath at 40 years old, it took a long time and a lot of doctors to figure out what was happening.
Stults said the Mayo Clinic finally diagnosed him with bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as “popcorn lung,” a rare disease found in factory workers exposed to high levels of diacetyl, which some companies used to give microwave popcorn its buttery flavor.
At its worst point, the disease reduced Stults lung capacity to 28 percent, though it’s now in the low 40s.
“I can do some things (now), but I’m not going to be racing up and down Sleeping Bear Dunes,” he said.
Byron Center High School students also heard from Dr. Shelley Schmidt, a pulmonologist with Spectrum Health.
“When researchers take these off the shelf — pods and e-cigarette juices — they find thousands of different chemicals and some are known to cause cancer, and some can certainly cause lung damage,” Schmidt explained.
Schmidt is concerned, too, about the level of nicotine contained in most vape liquids.
“Nicotine is an incredibly addictive substance and it’s also a well-known gateway drug,” she said.
In addition, developing adolescent brains are most sensitive to the effects of nicotine.
Schmidt is skeptical about vape products that claim nicotine levels at zero.
“Because these pods are unregulated, I don’t trust that it’s zero nicotine because, again, their goal is to get you to buy more pods,” she said.
The students 24 Hour News 8 interviewed thought the presentations were a great first step in the effort to educate students and parents, but they fear vapes aren’t going away any time soon.
“I think parents should open up this conversation with their kids, and I think this was a really good introduction to it,” said senior Kersten Bower.
“I’m really worried (about the spike in vaping) actually,” she continued. “Especially (about the impact) of all the chemicals in there.”
All four of the students expressed concern about vaping among their fellow students.
“It’s just really disappointing to see your classmates destroying their lives,” said Jared Lowder, a senior.
“Studies are now starting to come out and people are starting to understand, yeah, it gives you that buzz for a few seconds, but then is it worth the rest of your life?” Andrew Aguis, a junior, said.