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First vaping-related death confirmed in Minnesota

Minnesota right now has 17 cases of lung disease related to vaping "illicit" THC products. Another 15 cases are under investigation. This is the first death.

For the first time, a patient hospitalized with a vaping-related lung injury has died in Minnesota.

Officials with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) say the person who died was over 65 years old, and had a long and complicated hospitalization and suffered from other health issues before vaping.

The person died in August, but investigators took longer to confirm that the lung injury was associated with vaping illegal street products that contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

"With our cases in Minnesota, so far they have been vaping illicit THC, and that was also the case here," Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist, told KARE.

"This individual had back pain and was using the THC to help with that."

So far none of the vaping-related illnesses discovered in Minnesota have come from people using prescription medical cannabis products. But Lynfield said patients who are concerned should consult with their pharmacists and physicians to see if another form of medical cannabis would work just as well for them.

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RELATED: Investigators focus on THC in MN vaping lung disease cases

Minnesota right now has 17 confirmed or "probable" cases of lung disease related to vaping illicit THC products. Another 15 cases are under investigation. Many patients have been in the intensive care unit, but this is the first death in Minnesota.

The investigation is in its early phases and it's not clear yet which ingredients in black market THC products is causing the illness.

"It does look like it is a chemical type of pneumonia and the question is, what is the chemical?" Dr. Lynfield remarked.

"And is there something around the dose of the chemical, the duration? Does the heating change it in some way? Is the delivery method involved? All questions we're looking into right now."

Just because the THC products are "illicit" doesn't mean they're not plentiful and popular. School administrators and medical professionals tell KARE11 kids and adults are using unregulated THC products widely and get them online and on the street.

"I think the government does need some kind of oversight on this," said Dr. Sakina Naqvi, a Pulmonologist for Fairview Health. "People are dying because it's unregulated."

Dr. Naqvi says she's seen at least seven cases of severe lung injury recently, and she says they haven't just been tied to illicit THC.

"Almost all of the cases that we have seen have been related to vaping of CBD oil," Naqvi said. "We do know, for a fact, that oil is not something that you should be inhaling. It's not absorbed and it actually impairs the lungs ability to exchange oxygen."

On Thursday, New York state health officials reported finding extremely high levels of a different oil, Vitamin E Acetate, in nearly all THC samples from patients with severe lung disease. 

The Minnesota Department of Health says it's lab doesn't have results yet, linking cases to any single irritant.

Kent Erdahl: "It sounds like it's not necessarily a problem with the THC itself being vaped?"

Naqvi: "We don't believe that's the case, but we're not really sure so I don't think anyone wants to say anything one way or another. Sometimes I almost want to bring my patients to an ICU and say, 'Hey, this is what can happen. This isn't a joke, this isn't fake news, this isn't some propaganda against marijuana. We're just saying, we don't know what is going on. We're just saying, at least until we know what's happening, stop for a little while.'"

Governor Tim Walz issued a statement saying, “Our sympathies go out to the family of the person who died. This tragedy and the serious injuries suffered by others show the stakes of this outbreak. Health officials are working hard to determine a cause and share information to prevent additional injuries. As that work continues, I urge Minnesotans to follow their guidance.”

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Across the country, the CDC is looking into more than 450 potential or confirmed cases in 33 states. Most of those also involved THC.

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