Vaping Health Concerns Push Schools Toward Detection Tech

School officials throughout Centre County, Pa., are looking to technology to find and weed out vaping in the public school system. Recent reports about the dangers have added a sense of urgency to the issue.

by Varshini Chellapilla, Centre Daily Times / September 26, 2019
Shutterstock/GrungeElfz

(TNS) — State College police officer John Aston sat in his office and gestured toward the two boxes in his desk filled to the brim with confiscated e-cigarettes. Each in its own separate plastic bag, the vapes, as they are also known, come in different sizes, styles and colors. He pulled out a sleek black USB-like device and a larger cylinder with a bottle of yellow liquid. A click of a button or a quick inhale could produce a cloud of smoke that contains more nicotine than a puff of a regular cigarette.

As the school resource officer at State College Area High School, Aston is responsible for searching for and confiscating the ever-growing number of vapes on campus. According to a federal survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, more than a quarter of high school students use e-cigarettes. At State High, Aston said that approximately 50 vapes were confiscated from students during the last academic year.

With the CDC reporting more than 500 national cases of lung illnesses linked to vaping and seven deaths, concerns about the prevalence of vaping among adolescents and young adults is growing across the country, and Centre County is no exception. The widespread issue is prompting local schools to shop for vape detectors and alter their curriculum to include the health risks associated with vaping.

What are the health risks?

Vaping involves an electronic device that heats a liquid solution, typically containing nicotine or marijuana, to be inhaled and exhaled in the form of aerosol. The devices — e-cigarettes, vapes, Juuls — come in different flavors (Gummi Bears, buttered popcorn, cinnamon, etc.) and with customizable designs that are attractive to younger audiences.

A now-deleted FAQ section of the Juul website states that one Juul pod contains nicotine equivalent to one pack, or 200 puffs, of regular cigarettes, according to Truth Initiative.

Jane Gessner, assistant principal of Penns Valley Area High School, said that it is tough to catch students vaping in schools.

“With vapes, they can essentially have them up their sleeves, in their pockets, in their computer bags that they carry around that it’s just so convenient and if they would step into a bathroom stall, or anything, they can take a couple of hits on that vape and then go about their day,” she said.

Local school officials said students have been caught using vapes that have been allegedly stolen from their parents, smoking in the bathrooms during class times and passing them around for a price.

“The thing that has been most concerning to the lung specialists is that this is becoming an epidemic in not just high school kids, but middle school and elementary school kids as well,” said Dr. Gregory Ruff, a pulmonary medicine physician with the Mount Nittany Physician Group. “The problem, from a lung perspective, is that we don’t know exactly what’s going in there.”

Mount Nittany Health could not provide a specific number of vaping-related diagnoses. However, Pennsylvania’s Department of Health has logged at least 17 statewide cases of lung injuries possibly connected to vaping as of Sept. 19.

“We always counsel people not to put things in their lungs that don’t belong,” Ruff said. “Vaping initially came along, and it was sort of touted as an alternative to cigarettes. And the opposite is actually been shown to be true, what vaping tends to be is sort of a gateway drug for people to get addicted to nicotine.”

According to Ruff, there are several possible root causes for these vaping-related illnesses — from the heating of the liquid that causes the release of toxic metals to the mixing of different chemicals and drugs in the liquid that can cause inflammation of the lungs.

Aston said that three students had to visit the school nurse at State High due to vaping-related incidents last school year.

“For adolescents, the danger is amplified due to its ability to interfere with brain development,” said Dr. Joy Drass, a pediatrician for Geisinger Gray’s Woods Pediatrics and the medical director of the organization’s western region. Along with posing a risk for addiction, nicotine usage in teenagers harms the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control.

Drass said that patients often experience coughing, chest pains, fatigue or shortness of breath before needing to be hospitalized.

“(Vaping) isn’t a regulated thing. This is sort of seen as a recreational thing which means it is not subject to the same sort of stringent guidelines and evaluation that other potential medical devices have,” Ruff said. “But the reality is, this is a sort of medical device, right? We are using it to get something into our body for some sort of response.”

How are schools enforcing vape-free environments?

As with many new fads, Rebecca Michaels, vice principal of Bellefonte Area High School, said that, until recently, there was little education on the topic of vaping. A 2018 study by Truth Initiative shows that nearly 63% of vape users between the ages of 15 and 24 did not even know that their product contained nicotine.

“Up until now, it’s been this question mark. We know it’s bad, but how bad?” Michaels said. “Whereas, for cigarettes, we’ve got hundred years worth of data to say how bad it is. (Now), it’s a little more clear on that.”

Some local schools have incorporated the effects of vaping and e-cigarettes into their health class curriculum and others host a workshop at the beginning of the year to start discussions about vaping. Michaels said that teachers at Bellefonte discuss vaping under the same umbrella as tobacco products and drugs with an emphasis on health risks. She was also working with Centre County Youth Services Bureau to develop a better way to address the dangers of vaping.

Anti-tobacco policies have also been expanded over the past few years to include e-cigarettes and vapes. Several schools issue in-school suspension for first-time offenders along with mandatory vape cessation classes. Repeat offenders can be subject to police involvement and expulsion.

Some schools are planning to install vape detectors in the bathrooms and locker rooms, where a majority of unsupervised smoking takes place. The sensors look like smoke detectors and are equipped to pick up the chemicals and odors emitted. They can also pick up the presence of marijuana and other drugs.

Bald Eagle Area High School and State High are shopping for detectors with the latter planning to test samples over the next few months.

The issue has also caught the attention of the Trump administration, which recently moved to ban the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes. In Pennsylvania, the state senate on Wednesday approved a bill to raise the age for sale and use of tobacco and nicotine products to 21 years.

“We have seen how dangerous cigarettes are over time and the dangerous of vaping has been in the headlines recently,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said in a press release. “This will help ensure that older high school or young college students are not buying these products for their younger friends.”

The bill will next go to the House for consideration.

“From our school perspective, we are definitely doing everything we can to discourage vaping. But my biggest concern comes from the ease of accessibility for students to obtain them and also carry them,” Gessner said. “I’ve heard it from students who I have had to talk to about vaping. They think they need it. And I think it just gets developed into a habit because it’s so easy. We’ve heard students say, ‘I just can’t go all day without doing it.’ ”

©2019 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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