On a recent Thursday night, a young man sat in a chair at Washington Crown Center and took a hit from a vape pen.
The outbreak of lung illnesses and deaths associated with vaping concerns him, he said, but not enough to make him stop vaping.
“I feel people are getting sick from the ones they buy offline, not the ones they get from reputable stores,” he said. “Yeah, it’s a concern, but we’re all gonna die sometime.”
The number of people suffering from severe lung illnesses related to vaping reached 1,479 this week, with cases being reported in almost every state.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday 33 deaths have been confirmed in 24 states.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health Oct. 4 confirmed the state’s first death.
The multistate outbreak of lung illnesses began in March, and in Pennsylvania, 11 confirmed cases of severe lung illnesses have been reported.
The state Health Department is investigating more than 63 other cases.
“What we are seeing is truly a public health emergency in Pennsylvania,” Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said earlier this month.
Doctors are concerned about growing number of severe pulmonary disease associated with vaping.
“It’s a very serious thing. People should pay attention to it and not take it lightly,” said Dr. Tariq Cheema, a pulmonologist with Allegheny Health Network. “You can have completely normal lungs and end up on a ventilator.”
Cheema said he and his colleagues at AHN have seen an increase in asthma and asthma-related problems among teens who vape. The hospital also had a pneumonia case he suspects was related to vaping.
The CDC and other investigators have not yet identified a specific product or ingredient to link the cases.
However, the CDC says most of the people who suffered lung injuries from vaping were using products containing THC, particularly those obtained off the street.
In a statement posted Thursday on its website, the CDC said, “We recommend that you should not use e-cigarette, or vaping products that contain THC.”
It further warned, “Since the specific cause or causes of lung injury are not yet know, the only way to assure that you are not at risk while the investigation continues is to consider refraining from use of all e-cigarette, or vaping products.”
Nate Moore, manager of House of Vapes, a vaporizer store in Washington Crown Center, said the recent reports of illnesses have impacted business, and more customers are asking questions about the products before purchasing.
“People shouldn’t get anything off the street or anything made on the black market,” said Moore. “People are also taking different products and mixing them with THC.”
He believes small businesses like House of Vape, that sell vaporizers and vaping fluids as a substitute for smoking, are “taking the blame for products that are sold illegally on the black market.”
The CDC has received age and gender information for the cases reported, and among the findings are: 70% of patients are male; the median age of patients is 23 years old; 79% of patients are under 35 years old; and 21% of patients are 18 to 20 years old.
Cheema said when e-cigarettes were introduced, physicians viewed it as a viable alternative to quitting cigarettes.
“But what has happened is the market has really exploded, and so many small places opened up and because it’s not FDA-regulated, we have no clue what chemicals they put in there,” said Cheema. “You cannot trust what’s in these products.”
School districts have seen an increase in the use of e-cigarettes and vape pens among high school students, and have taken steps to educate teachers, parents and students about the dangers associated with the products.
School districts also have updated drug and alcohol policies to keep the devices off school grounds.
Canon-McMillan School District Superintendent Michael Daniels said the district’s policy prohibits the use of e-cigarettes and devices in and around all school facilities.
“We are learning the importance of vape device users to be aware of the documented harmful effects of vaping,” said Daniels, citing the CDC statistics regarding e-cigarette and vaping-related illnesses and deaths. “This is a very real problem, and users are encouraged to understand the releveance of the research and the documented harmful, negative, life-ending effects.”
In what is likely an unprecedented situation in the history of Washington County politics, voters will see the names of two candidates on the ballot, one of whom has a record of criminal charges, but no convictions, and another whose row office has been under investigation since July by state police, who have not filed charges.
The candidates are not running against each other, but for separate offices. James Roman hopes to be elected register of wills and Frank Scandale is running for re-election as clerk of courts when voters go to the polls Nov. 5.
The register of wills carries a second title, clerk of orphan’s court.
The past of Roman, 47, of Canonsburg, a Republican, includes a withdrawn criminal trespass charge in Texas and a civil proceeding, a lifetime ban as a financial broker.
He first made a run for county office in 2017. That year, incumbent Democratic Recorder of Deeds Debbie Bardella bested him by about 3,500 votes.
Roman finished second in a field of three Republican candidates in the 2018 primary seeking a nomination for an open seat in the 40th Legislative District.
He prevailed in the Republican primary earlier this year to win a nomination and send him into the homestretch toward the register of wills row office, which last year handled a total of approximately $13.2 million in receipts. The lion’s share was forwarded to the state, but the county’s allocation was about $460,000.
A Facebook page, “James Roman – Washington County says no to public office,” reproduces his 2012 mugshot from Denton County, Tex. While a resident there, Roman was charged with criminal trespass. The charge, a misdemeanor, was dismissed.
“I’ve never gone to a criminal trial,” he said. “I’ve never set foot in a criminal courtroom. The worst thing I’ve done is I bounced a check because I closed an account and moved to Texas. My record comes up clean in both Pennsylvania and Texas.”
Roman said he offered “to run a background check in all 50 states.”
A bounced check case from 2005 lists Roman’s address at Aerial Drive, Pristine Fields, Cecil Township. Filing with Washington County Court in 2006 that the mortgage was in default, lender J.P. Morgan Chase began a civil case and foreclosed on the Aerial Drive house.
The Facebook page also includes a filing from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which, according to its online statement, is not part of the government, but a not-for-profit organization authorized by Congress to protect America’s investors by making sure the broker-dealer industry operates fairly and honestly.
The agency, as part of a finding, alleged Roman, while working in Texas, did not respond to its inquiries and failed to provide documents and information. He was found to be in default and was listed in 2012 as “permanently barred” as a financial adviser.
“I gave up financial advising and I moved on to real estate. All I did was send a client an email,” Roman said, noting the FINRA ruling says he mounted no defense to contest the finding.
Roman said the Facebook page that includes the FINRA case was created prior to the May primary by an ex-girlfriend’s ex-boss, but that Facebook “won’t take it down because it’s an anti-conservative page” and that he’s been blocked from accessing it.
When asked if anything had changed with FINRA or if the Texas case had been expunged, he responded there was “nothing to expunge.”
Why don’t you ask a positive question?” he said, calling this story “a hit piece.”
Roman referred to information on his campaign’s Facebook page, James Roman for Register of Wills.
In the Nov. 5 election, Roman’s opponent is Democrat Suzanne Archer, 55, of South Strabane Township, deputy of Orphan’s Court. The candidates are seeking an open seat due to the impending retirement of Register Mary Jo Poknis.
Archer, who is making her first run for public office, said last week, “I’ve tried to stay away from the negativity so far. I can’t say someone else won’t.”
Because the row office has a dual title, the salary of the Register of Wills is $89,815, $2,000 more than other row offices.
Seeking election to a second term as Washington County Clerk of Courts is Scandale, 51, a Democrat, of Canonsburg.
An audit by the county controller completed over the summer revealed $96,000 is missing from the clerk of courts office. In announcing the results of the audit, Washington County Commissioners turned over the matter to state police for investigation, which is ongoing.
Scandale’s Republican opponent Brenda Davis, 46, former mayor of Washington, appeared last month at a rally on the courthouse steps amidst signs, some of which queried, “Where’s the $96K?”
It’s one of two question she said voters are repeating as she campaigns. “My reply is, ‘That’s a very good question,’” Davis said.
Amid the election season that culminates Nov. 5, Scandale, is seeking a second, four-year term. He wrote in response to an email inquiry that his supporters have “encouraged me in my mission to improve the best practices with the office of clerk of courts.”
He pointed to steps he has taken in the row office including the handling of court orders, legal briefs, appeals, filings and payments by those who owe fines and court costs for convictions, probation and the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program.
He also noted for the 2018 and 2019 county budgets, he requested allocations for cameras, check scanners and a safe for the office, and that a bank courier service handle deposits.
“I have finally been successful in obtaining these tools for my workers to bring efficiency to the office,” he wrote.
The other question Davis said voters have posed is why has no one from the clerk of courts office has been suspended even though the latest audit became public in July and a previous audit of 2017 books raised red flags.
“Whenever I answer the second question, I direct them to our county commissioners,” Davis said. “All I hear are excuses, excuses and more excuses. Where is the accountability?”
The commissioners have said row officers, like them, are independent elected officials, and the law grants the three-member board no jurisdiction to fire employees of fellow elected office-holders.
On Oct. 8, the Washington County Republican Party wrote to the governor and three members of the state Senate, asking for Scandale to be removed from office.
Attorney Lane Turturice, in the letter, noted nearly $4.2 million was accepted by the clerk of court’s office in 2018, but of that sum, on 24 occasions, a total of $96,000 was never deposited in a bank.
“There has been no wrongdoing committed by myself and my office and I am looking forward to the anticipated finding of the same by the investigation,” Scandale wrote.
“I have no problem with the individual who wrote the letter to Gov. Wolf as it is an expression of his free speech,” he said. “However, it is clear this letter was and is nothing more than a political stunt aimed at me out of apparent frustration because nothing illegal has or will be found.”
Scandale called the ongoing investigation “welcomed” and said he is cooperating fully.
Both he and his opponent ran unopposed in their respective May primaries.
“When you’re an elected official, you need to treat that position with respect, and some would consider it a privilege, but the bottom line is, we are responsible for taxpayers’ money,” said Davis, a former Democrat who changed her party affiliation last year.
Joseph DiSarro, political science professor at Washington & Jefferson College, said of row office races at the state and county level, “They should not be elected offices, period. The voters know very little about those offices.”
He called the row offices “archaic, a holdover from machine politics, Republican or Democrat. You would be rewarded with these sort of positions that pay a reasonable salary and provide upward political mobility for loyal party members.
“It would be far better to have appointments and some type of confirmation,” he added. “I think the commissioners would evaluate them, and they would be more likely to be free of serious baggage.”
DiSarro also said of anyone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, “You have a presumption of innocence. I’m a person who believes in due process. I don’t believe you can say anything about anyone unless they’ve been convicted.”