Vape-related illnesses are on the rise. Here's what you need to know to stay safe.
If you’ve been following the news at all lately, you’ve likely heard about the recent surge of vape-related illnesses sweeping the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of cases has risen to 800 and counting. The symptoms range from fatigue, chest pains, and coughing to shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and fever, but the common thread connecting all of these otherwise inexplicable lung injuries is recent vape use.
Why the sudden surge when it seems people have been vaping without incident for years? One theory is that a new chemical or some combination of chemicals have been introduced to (largely illegal) vape products that cause adverse reactions once combined, heated, and allowed to enter the lungs. Another theory is that doctors have only recently started making the connection, although researchers have connected pneumonia-like symptoms with e-cigarette use as early as 2012.
The jury may still be out on what the common link is, but it’s worth knowing where current legislation stands and what you can expect from reputable vs. black market producers.
The Legal Vapes
In addition to testing for potency, legal states require licensed cannabis brands to have independent labs test their products for a wide range of additives and impurities. California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control tests for E-coli, salmonella, four other microbiological impurities, two types of mycotoxins, 66 types of pesticides, 20 residual solvents, and heavy metals like cadmium, lead, arsenic, and mercury—things you definitely don’t want in your body.
Similar to California, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board requires Washington brands to test for E-coli, salmonella, two types of mycotoxins, 15 residual solvents, and four heavy metals. Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division also requires brands to test for E-coli, salmonella, six residual solvents, and four heavy metals, but they’re vague about which pesticides they test for. Instead, they simply state, “If testing identifies the use of a banned pesticide or the improper application of a permitted pesticide, then that Test Batch shall be considered to have failed contaminant testing.”
Out of the four legal western states, Oregon is the vaguest about their testing requirements. According to Oregon Health Authority’s website, Oregon brands are required to test flower and concentrates for pesticides, residual solvents, and “micro (random).” It appears they do not test for heavy metals or microbial impurities like other legal states.
As you may have noticed, there are no nationwide, standardized rules when it comes to testing cannabis products for contaminants. Ironically, maintaining the Schedule I status of cannabis means federal regulators like the FDA have their hands tied when they actually need to intervene. As such, states have taken it upon themselves to warn consumers and advise caution. California issued a health advisory warning consumers to abstain from vaping until the CDC wraps up its investigation. Oregon retailers have started pulling vape products from shelves. And Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment has advised consumers to stop vaping until a definitive cause is identified.
The Illegal Vapes
If you’re living in a state where cannabis is not medically or recreationally legal, any vape you buy there is technically illegal and therefore not subject to any testing requirements. Not having the same strict standards—or any standards for that matter—means these products could contain any number of hazardous substances.
Pesticides are the primary, most ubiquitous concern among illegal vapes. It’s bad enough to smoke flower tainted by pesticides, but vaping concentrated oils compounds those health hazards exponentially. In addition to using pesticide-laden oils, black market vape makers typically use a slew of cutting agents like polyethylene glycol and propylene glycol, both of which can break down into the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, respectively, if heated to high enough temperatures. There’s also the fear that these unregulated chemicals and cutting agents could be leaching heavy metals from the vape cartridges themselves and adding that to the mix.
Another big concern with illegal vapes: vitamin E acetate. While vitamin E oil is perfectly fine to ingest as a supplement or use as a topical, its molecular structure makes it incredibly dangerous to inhale. Peddlers of illicit products like Honey Cut and Floraplex use vitamin E oil as a thickener and cutting agent in their cartridges to improve the viscosity of the oil inside, ultimately at the peril of their customers.
The problem with black market vapes (beyond the horrors listed above) is they often look very similar to the products legitimate, legal brands make. To ensure you’re not buying a potentially life-threatening knock-off, look out for red flags like a price markdown that’s too good to be true and a lack of test results on the packaging. The best way to ensure you’re getting the real thing is to be sure you’re exclusively buying from licensed brands, retailers, and dispensaries in legal states.
This quote the New York Times obtained from Mitch Zeller, the director of the Center for Tobacco Products at the FDA, says it all: “If you’re thinking of purchasing one of these products off the street, out of the back of a car, out of a trunk, in an alley, or if you’re going to then go home and make modifications to the product yourself using something that you purchased from some third party or got from a friend, think twice.”
Unless you're buying your vapes from licensed brands and retailers that publish independent lab results, there's really no way of knowing what's in it. So, if you’re at all uncertain about the origins of a product or what might be in it, don’t risk it. Especially if you can smoke some high-quality flower instead.