New lab tests show dangers of unregulated THC vape cartridges

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New data from a California laboratory show that THC vape cartridges may carry a substantial risk of exposing users to harmful chemicals. And while the test results from analytic laboratory CannaSafe show that illicit market products pose the most danger, even carts from licensed companies may be unsafe if used improperly.

CannaSafe, a state-licensed cannabis laboratory in Los Angeles, conducted a study of THC vape cartridges that it obtained from both licensed dispensaries and unlicensed delivery services. The company completed a laboratory analysis of the cartridges that tested the vapor produced by the cartridges for the presence of harmless compounds. Unlike other tests that analyze the contents of cartridges, the new tests reveal the toxins present in vapor after cannabis oil is heated and vaporized prior to inhalation. Similar tests are currently being conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its continuing investigation of the series of lung injuries caused by vaping that has claimed the lives of at least 40 people.

Dangers of Unlicensed Carts

All six of the illicit cartridges tested contained high levels of potentially harmful chemicals, including one labeled Maui Wowie that had 1,500 times the allowable level of pesticides and five times the legal concentration of lead. 

“It had everything bad in it,” said CannaSafe vice president of operations Antonio Frazier. “If you look at some of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] data for fatal dosing, I’d be willing to bet that some of these are over what they would consider a fatal dose.”

Vapor from counterfeit cartridges manufactured to mimic the products of licensed brands Stiiizy and Kingpen contained formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. The vapor of a cartridge sold under the illicit brand name Dank Vapes showed the presence of seven different pesticides, trace amounts of formaldehyde, and significant levels of vitamin E acetate, an additive used in many unregulated products. Vitamin E acetate has been identified by the CDC as a likely culprit in the spate of lung injuries known as e-cigarette and vaping product use associated lung injury, or EVALI. Five of the six illicit market cartridges contained vitamin E acetate at levels ranging from 30% to nearly 37%. Illicit cartridges also had lower levels of cannabinoids and terpenes than products from licensed manufacturers.

Legit Carts Can Be Dangerous, too

The vapor from carts from regulated companies showed no harmful chemicals when vaped to a temperature consistent with a vape battery of 3 volts. But when heated with a more powerful voltage, even the vapor of licensed carts showed the presence of harmful chemicals known as HPHCs, which are also found in tobacco smoke.

“At the high temperature, we found considerably high amounts of formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen cyanide in some of the illicit carts,” Frazier told High Times. “None of the legal products produced these three chemicals, but low levels of other harmful and potentially harmful constituents like benzene and toluene were found in the legal carts at higher voltages.”

To address the issue, Frazier recommends that cannabis manufacturers adopt more sophisticated vaping hardware as the industry standard.

“We know that a lot of our licensed partners have mechanisms to control temperature on their devices, and this same level of quality needs to be implemented across the industry,” he said. “Our current regulations give us the cleanest oil in the nation, and now we must update them to include hardware.”

Noting that most of the reported cases of EVALI appear to have been caused by THC vape cartridges purchased from unlicensed sources, Frazier says that the best way for consumers in legal states like California to protect themselves is to ensure that they are buying from a licensed retailer.

“CannaSafe continues to urge consumers to stay away from illicit cannabis products and to buy legal products from licensed dispensaries.”

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