Pittsburgh not immune to poisonings related to e-cigarettes

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Reports of poisonings have been cropping up all over -- Minnesota, Missouri, Utah, Nebraska, Kentucky, Oklahoma, even Sweden. In Britain, a Staffordshire bull terrier puppy in February died within hours of chewing a bottle of nicotine-laced juice used to fuel the new rage: electronic cigarettes.

Pittsburgh has not been immune. Since the first case of e-cigarette poisoning in Pittsburgh was reported in 2009, the number of cases -- children and adults -- has consistently gone up. The number of incidents rose from 12 in 2012 to 18 in 2013, according to the Pittsburgh Poison Center.

There have already been seven reports so far this year -- putting 2014 on track to exceed last year's total.

Throughout the country the number of poisoning cases mentioning e-cigarettes has skyrocketed. The American Association of Poison Control Centers found a 307 percent increase from 2012 to 2013, but could not provide last year's total until its annual reports were completed.

The battery-powered devices use cartridges filled with solutions that deliver nicotine using an aerosol. Cases range from teenagers "trying to catch a little bit of a buzz" to children drinking the liquid solutions, according to Michael Lynch, medical director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center.

"It's similar to situations where kids come in eating cigarette butts," Dr. Lynch said. "It's just another chance of exposure."

Symptoms typically include nausea, vomiting, tremors and shakiness. Dr. Lynch compares the effects to what it feels like after smoking a cigarette for the first time. A very large exposure could result in changes in blood pressure, heart rate, coma or even death. No deaths have been reported here.

"It's hard to say how much could cause serious symptoms. It all depends on size and tolerance," Dr. Lynch said. "Ingestion of any amount can cause symptoms."

Each cartridge contains an amount of nicotine similar to what is in a regular cigarette, but the problem is it's in a "more easily consumed vehicle," he said. The liquid makes it simpler for children to ingest. E-cigarettes allow teenagers to abuse nicotine because they can be sold to minors and the odorless vapor makes smoking less noticeable in schools.

The National Youth Tobacco Survey reported a rise of high school students using e-cigarettes from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. More than 1.78 million middle and high school students around the country said they had tried e-cigarettes.

Unlike nicotine replacement therapies, e-cigarette solutions are unregulated, can be fruit- or candy-flavored and packaged in containers that are not child-resistant, at concentration levels higher than those in either cigarettes or nicotine replacement therapies, according to Tim McAfee, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Office on Smoking and Health.

Dr. Lynch suggests anyone who suspects an e-cigarette poisoning call the Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. The center can provide recommendations on what to do next and a follow-up call.

Sara Payne: spayne@post-gazette.com.

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