Chicago Synthetic Pot Outbreak Results In 38 Hospitalizations, 1 Death
At least one person has died in Illinois following a recent rash of hospitalizations of people who use synthetic pot and then experience severe bleeding, according to state health officials.
The person’s death was reported Saturday, but information about the person’s name, age or gender was not released as of Sunday. A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health also would not say in what county the death took place.
The death comes as the state continues to see an uptick in the number of hospitalizations from people reporting severe bleeding after using a synthetic cannabinoid product. As of Saturday, at least 38 people had been hospitalized in the Chicago area and in central Illinois, according to public health officials. There were 10 cases reported in Chicago and four others in Cook County, according to the department of health.
Three of the hospitalized people tested positive for brodifacoum, more commonly known as rat poison.
All 38 people went to hospitals after experiencing some form of severe bleeding, according to the health department. Their symptoms included blood in the urine, severe bloody noses, bleeding gums, coughing up blood or blood coming from the eyes and ears. It also could cause heavier menstrual bleeding.
Synthetic cannabinoid, often called Spice or K2, is a man-made mixture of hundreds of chemicals that affect the same brain cell receptors as the main ingredient in marijuana. The substance is sometimes used as a spray on plant material for smoking, or sold as liquids to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes or other devices, according to the health department’s warning.
Because the substance contains a variety of chemicals, users often do not know the mixture contains rat poison, according to the department of health’s news release.
There is a statewide ban on specific formulas of synthetic marijuana but manufacturers could be slightly changing the formula to sidestep the law and get the products sold, said Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the public health department. Those who have been hospitalized obtained the products in convenience stores, from dealers and friends, she said.
Consumption of synthetic cannabinoids previously has caused serious health problems such as seizures and kidney failure, but the side effect of severe bleeding is tied to the recent outbreak, said Dr. Patrick Lank, a medical toxicologist who works at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“Most of what we are seeing is spontaneous bleeding of the gums or nose, in the stool and urine,” he said.
Exposure to brodifacoum, the chemical believed to be tied to the recent outbreak, causes the body to block its natural use of Vitamin K, which helps in the process of blood clotting, Lank said. A person who has been exposed to this type of poison would have to take Vitamin K for weeks to months to help manage their symptoms. How quickly someone’s body could eliminate brodifacoum varies on a case-by-case basis because it is dependent on the quantity consumed and how the poison was ingested.
If a person was hospitalized, they could get Vitamin K through an IV, which would work faster on the body, Lank said. Still, patients typically only would be kept in the hospital for a few days and then would have to consume the vitamin orally.
Last week, the state public health department sent a memo to pharmacies and pharmacists across the state warning they might see patients with prescriptions of unusually high doses of Vitamin K because of the recent outbreak. Pharmacists also were advised to stress to patients that over-the-counter Vitamin K supplements were not potent enough to treat this condition.
“Although unusual to see such high doses prescribed, due to the long-acting nature of this poisoning, these high doses are required,” the memo stated.
The Illinois Department of Public Health has not specified if any of the reported cases involved children or teens, but a memo about the outbreak was sent to state school administrators and school nurses.
Adolescents are at a high risk to be exposed to the outbreak because synthetic cannabinoid products are typically easier to obtain than marijuana, Lank said. It also does not have an odor and it is not typically detected on urine drug tests, he said.
Cara Smith, spokeswoman for the Cook County sheriff’s office, said in an email that the office was working with state officials to get more information about the origin of the synthetic pot contributing to the outbreak.
“If you use synthetic drugs, you’re playing Russian roulette with your life,” Smith said. “It’s that serious.”
Anyone experiencing a reaction to synthetic pot is asked to call 911 or to have someone drive them to a hospital for immediate treatment.