The DEA rarely tested vape cartridges. Amid a rising health crisis, testing them is the new norm

As dozens of people have died and thousands more face irreversible lung damage from illnesses related to vaping, FOX 2 took an exclusive look inside a DEA lab in Chicago to learn more about how health officials are doing what they can to get counterfeit drugs off the street.

There have been 42 deaths in the U.S. so far and more deaths are under investigation.

"They're being seized and they're being submitted regularly to the laboratory for analysis," Melanie Domagala, DEA Chicago Lab Director said.

The Centers or Disease Control and Prevention is calling it an outbreak. The use of vaping products and "sudden lung damage" are being reported more and more.

FOX 2 visited the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago lab. There's no question that testing vaping cartridges was never on their radar. Domagala says now it's become the norm.

"The magnitude of the vape cartridge issue is important," she said.

She says they weren't even testing vape cartridges last year and now they have a full-time chemist to do it. At first, they didn't even know how to test the cartridges.

"We're still developing our method in terms of opening them and the whole procedure of how to extract the content of the cartridges for analysis," Domagala said.

Forensic chemist Tycho Spadaro was forced to get creative.

"I just use a binder clip and prop it in there and let the sample come out - wait some time," he said.

Spadaro says the majority of the cartridges he tests seized from the streets contain high levels of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.

"The law is .3 percent and it's above .3," he said.

Spadaro using a heat lamp to drain the heavy liquid from the cartridges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Vitamin E acetate is likely used as a thickening agent in these vaping products and while it isn't harmful when it's taken as a supplement or applied to the skin when it's inhaled, it can severely interfere with lung function.

For example, the case of a 16-year-old boy from Metro Detroit. In early September, the teen's health was declining quickly. His lungs were so irreversibly damaged from vaping that doctors believe if he hadn't had a double lung transplant in October, he would have died within days.

"What I saw in his lungs is nothing that I've ever seen before and I've been doing lung transplants for 20 years," said Dr. Hassan Nemeh of Henry Ford Hospital - Detroit.

The CDC says as of this month, there have been 2,172 cases of vaping-related lung injuries reported across the U.S., and teens or young adults make up almost half of those hospitalized with breathing problems from vaping.

"This is not just the case of an unlucky young man. This is happening too much to ignore," said Henry Ford  Dr. Nicholas Yeldo.

The CDC says THC has been found in most samples but nicotine was also present in more than half, and while there may be more than one cause of this outbreak, Vitamin E acetate was discovered in every sample.

A major myth: E-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes. These local doctors say of 10,000 kids interviewed  28 percent of high schoolers and 11 percent of middle schoolers admitted to vaping.

"I believe we are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg," said Henry Ford Dr. Lisa Allenspach.

The CDC says it's working "24/7" to identify the cause of this outbreak, warning everyone that products purchased on the street pose a much greater risk.