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Vaping device confiscation results in nicotine poisoning

John Conway, assistant principal at Jamestown High School, talks about a couple of vaping sticks confiscated from students. John M. Steiner / Forum News Service

JAMESTOWN, N.D.—The dangers of electronic nicotine delivery systems, more commonly called vaping systems or e-cigarettes, became acutely obvious to John Conway, assistant principal of Jamestown High School, two weeks ago.

The situation started when some students reported other students were vaping in a restroom at the high school. This was confirmed by a custodian who said he smelled a sweet scent in the bathroom.

Many of the liquids used in vaping systems are candy or fruit flavored, Conway said.

A vaping device heats a liquid that contains nicotine and other substances to create a vapor or aerosol that the user then inhales to ingest the chemicals. The devices often are powered by a rechargeable battery and can be refilled with the liquid or with small cartridges of the liquid.

Conway said he reviewed security video from outside the bathroom and was able to isolate two students exchanging a vaping device and called them to his office.

During questioning, a vaping device was found in the shoe of one of the students and a bottle of a liquid used in the device was found in a backpack.

"It was a large bottle in a colorful packaging," Conway said. "There was an oily substance on the outside of the bottle."

Conway tightened the bottle top and put it in a bag and thought nothing of it at the time.

Shortly after handling the bottle, he began to feel nauseous and dizzy and "got real emotional," he said.

"It was freaky," Conway said. "I had no control."

The school nurse was called who monitored his vital signs. Conway declined offers to be taken to the emergency room.

"I kept going through different stages," he said. "I'd be nauseous, then there would be different kinds of spins. It was a weird feeling."

Over the course of a couple of hours, he went through phases of feeling ill and having intense emotions four times. He went home, slept through the afternoon and woke with the most intense headache he had ever experienced.

"I still didn't feel well," he said. "I finally felt better after about 12 hours."

Conway said the liquid was tested at the request of the school resource officer and found not to contain any foreign substances.

The incident has prompted increased vigilance at the school.

"Last week we had a meeting with the teachers and warned them not to touch the stuff," Conway said. "Teachers and adults need to be more vigilant."

Nancy Neary, director of tobacco prevention for Central Valley Health District, said the use of vaping devices is growing. The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Study for North Dakota estimated 20.6 percent of teenagers in North Dakota had used a vaping device to consume nicotine in the past year. This compares to 12.6 percent who used cigarettes.

"E-cigarette use has become a problem," she said. "Some, like the 'Juul' (vaping device) look like a USB flash drive."

Neary said most devices being marketed now do not look like a cigarette. Instead, they are shaped to resemble small electronic devices.

The flavors of the liquids used in the vaping devices are also a problem, she said.

"The liquids often come in varieties that are very appealing to children," Neary said. "Flavors like cotton candy, gummy bear or thousands of other candy and soft drink varieties."

Conway said the liquid that made him ill had a pleasant peach scent.

While the sweet flavors appeal to children, the nicotine content is dangerous, Neary said.

"Liquid nicotine is an extremely dangerous poison," she said. "It can be deadly, especially to pets and small children."

Conway said vaping has replaced cigarettes as a problem in schools.

"We don't smell smoke on the kids anymore," he said.

The vaping systems and nicotine liquids are treated as tobacco by the school, according to Conway. Students caught with the products can be referred to juvenile authorities, suspended from school for three days or issued a summons and fined by Jamestown Municipal Court, depending on the student's age. Punishment also includes exclusion from student activities at the school for six weeks on a first offense and 18 weeks on subsequent offenses.

"Last year we started hearing about them (vaping devices) but it is rampant this year," Conway said. "I'm collecting a couple per week this year."

The devices are available from retailers in Jamestown or through online vendors. The minimum age to purchase vaping equipment or supplies is 18, although students often find a way around the age requirement, Conway said.

Enforcement efforts are increasing at the school.

"There are kids who are really tired of this happening and want people to stop it," Conway said.

He also said anyone dealing with the materials needs to be careful.

"It is pretty scary and not fun to go through," he said.

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