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Update: Here’s How to Tell if Your Vape Cartridge is Safe and Not Counterfeit

This article was originally published on Weedmaps News in May 2019 before it was updated on August 26, 2019 in the midst of an outbreak of lung illnesses associated with e-cigarette and illicit THC and cannabidiol (CBD) cartridges. The article has been updated to include crucial information on the ongoing investigations.

As a result of the 380 illnesses and six deaths of people across the United States from vaping cannabis or e-cigarettes, consumers, vape makers, and retailers alike have to be aware of how products are made and where they were made.

There have been serious health and safety concerns associated with vaping technology, in the e-cigarette and the cannabis industry. About 380 confirmed and probable cases of severe respiratory problems were reported in 36 states after patients were vaping nicotine or cannabis, The Associated Press reported on Sept. 13, 2019. Of these cases, six patients died.

This public health situation has forced popular cannabis companies into action to protect customers by devising ways to verify authentic products and thwart potentially hazardous counterfeits.

Vape pens have gained acceptance from the cannabis community for their ease of use. Since vaping technology is so new, long-term health effects of vaping aren’t yet known. (Gina Coleman/Weedmaps)

Vape pens have gained acceptance from the cannabis community for their ease of use. Since vaping technology is so new, long-term health effects of vaping aren’t yet known. (Photo by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps) Trendy as they may be, vape pen cartridges are still the new kid on the cannabis block. This recent emergence, akin to the rise of e-cigarettes, has researchers scrambling to find out the long-term health effects of vaporization. Meanwhile, many states which have legalized cannabis are still refining testing requirements . The lack of insight into vaping has left many cannabis consumers to wonder whether their vape cartridge is safe to consume.

What’s Inside Your Vape Cartridge?

While there are plenty of vaporizers that can be used to consume flower and concentrates, the most popular device style to emerge from the vape clouds is the portable penlike design. Vape pens are designed to vaporize cannabis oils and distillates.

A vape pen comprises two primary components: a battery and the vape cartridge. The battery consists of the bottom portion of the vape pen, providing power to the heating element, which vaporizes the cannabis oil contained inside the vape cartridge. Most vape oil producers will tell you which voltage is compatible with the selected cartridge. These devices come in many shapes, sizes, and styles. Some vape pens have a button that activates the vape cartridge, while others are buttonless and only activated once the user takes a draw.

Vape cartridges include a mouthpiece, chamber, and heating element known as an atomizer. The chamber is filled with concentrated amounts of cannabinoids, usually either THC- or CBD-dominant, and terpenes. The atomizer is activated when contact is initiated with the battery, heating up the chamber and vaporizing the cannabis oil.

The chamber of a vape cartridge is filled with a THC- or cannabidiol (CBD)-dominant concentrate, and some producers will reintroduce terpenes that had been removed from the distillation process. (Gina Coleman/Weedmaps)

Cannabis vape oils that fill vape cartridges are usually created through a process called distillation, which strips the cannabis molecules down to just the cannabinoids. So, what about unique flavors that are defined by the plant’s terpene profile found in the aroma of fresh cannabis flower? All of that is stripped away during the distillation process. Some cannabis oil producers will collect the cannabis-derived terpenes during the process and reintroduce them into the oil, allowing the distillate-filled cartridge to be strain-specific. More commonly, the terpenes used to flavor distillate are derived from other natural plants.

Are There Contaminants in Your Vape Cartridge and Pens?

The most prevalent problem on the illegal vape market are concentrate cartridges that contain high levels of pesticides. When consumed at concentrated levels, inhaled pesticides cause health problems. To ensure that vape cartridges don’t contain hazardous pesticide level, it’s important to purchase from reputable brands that disclose third-party test results and include screening for pesticides.

Cutting agents can be added to enhance the intensity of the vapor cloud and overall mouthfeel of the vapors. Common cutting agents that are sometimes infused with cannabis oil and e-cigarette vape juice include:

  • Polyethylene glycol (PEG): a cutting agent used in vape liquids to keep the product evenly mixed.
  • Propylene glycol (PG): a binding agent that is added to cannabis vape cartridges because of its ability to foster even vape draws.
  • Vegetable glycerin (VG): Added to vape liquids to help generate large vape clouds for the user.
  • Vitamin E acetate: A generally safe additive for food, but it’s been found in thickening agents in illicit THC cartridges in some of the reported illnesses. Vitamin E acetate is a different chemical than the vitamin E found naturally in foods and in supplements. Vitamin E is safe to consume as a food or supplement up to 1,000 milligrams daily.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has labeled these cutting agents as safe for human ingestion, questions remain about what happens when these compounds are inhaled. A 2010 study , published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that inhaling PG could potentially exacerbate asthma and allergies. Additional research also suggests that, when vaporized at high temperatures, both PEG and PG breaks down into the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde .

There is a steadily rising number of cannabis oil producers that insist on not adding any cutting agents to their product. If you’re concerned about the potential harm of these cutting agents, seek out raw products that only contain cannabis distillate and cannabis-derived terpenes.

These vapes were identified by the New York State Department of Health as part of 34 cases of severe pulmonary illnesses in the state, among 380 confirmed and probable cases, with six patients dying, throughout the U.S. Health officials are looking into vitamin E acetate and its link to the illnesses. (Photo by New York State Department of Health via Flickr)

It’s not just the cannabis oil that is at risk of contamination. In a 2018 study conducted by scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, researchers discovered that unsafe amounts of toxic metals, including lead, were leaking from the heating coils of e-cigarettes and seeping into the aerosol that was inhaled. As the FDA continues to grapple with how to properly regulate e-cigarettes and vape pens, it’s up to vape cartridge manufacturers and testing labs to catch potentially hazardous products.

“Metal concentrations in the e-liquid from the original dispenser increased markedly in the same e-liquid after it was added to the device and was brought into contact with the heating coil, both in the generated aerosol and in the liquid that remained in the tank,” the study stated. “These findings support the hypothesis that metals are transferred from the device (most likely the coil) to the e-liquid and from the e-liquid to the aerosol that is inhaled by the user.”

A large portion of vape cartridge components are produced at metal foundries in China, many of which add small amounts of lead into brass and copper feedstocks to improve the malleability of metals. This includes the heating coil, which heats up the cannabis oil, potentially transferring toxic metals into the consumer’s vapors.

As lab testing requirements have been bolstered in California, scientists have been able to identify vape cartridges that contain high levels of lead before they reach the legal market. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control implemented Phase 3 testing standards on Jan. 1, 2019, which included analytical testing for heavy metals.

How to Tell if Your Vape Cartridge is Legit or Counterfeit

Another consequence of the vape pen’s rising popularity is the steady stream of fake THC cartridges that have flooded the market. Some of the industry’s most recognizable brands, such as Connected Cannabis Co. , Heavy Hitters and Kingpen , have battled against counterfeit vape cartridges. These counterfeit cartridges are being sold with similar branding, logos, and packaging as some of these producers, making it difficult for the average consumer to tell whether they’re buying legitimate products.

Update: Here’s How to Tell if Your Vape Cartridge is Safe and Not Counterfeit This article was originally published on Weedmaps News in May 2019 before it was updated on August 26, 2019 in the

Are marijuana vapes from licensed stores safe? Mass. lacks regulations on additives

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As they scramble to pinpoint the source of a mysterious outbreak of life-threatening lung ailments related to vaping, federal health officials have focused their suspicions on additives used in illicit marijuana vaporizer cartridges.

But in Massachusetts, the state’s otherwise-strict cannabis regulations impose no oversight on additives in regulated marijuana cartridges sold in licensed stores.

While the Cannabis Control Commission requires tests for certain contaminants, it sets no restrictions on ingredients used to flavor or cut the thick marijuana extracts used in vaping products — the very chemicals federal officials now fear are linked to 450 possible cases of lung illness, including five deaths, in 33 states.

US health officials have urged people to stop using the devices for now.

In Massachusetts, the state agency also does not regulate vaping cartridge hardware, even as lab tests and media reports suggest the heating coils in some cheap Chinese-made pods could leach heavy metals into the vapor they create.

Experts warned the lack of oversight around vape additives leaves consumers at risk, and the state flying blind into an emerging public health crisis.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘We know what the active ingredient is, so it’s fine,’ ” said Dr. Sharon Levy, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s substance use program, adding that popular vape cartridges bear little chemical resemblance to the marijuana plant, which has a long history of human consumption. “Actually, very small differences matter. We’re ignoring all of that. That is a very basic problem.”

So far, none of the patients whose cases are under investigation are from Massachusetts, but state officials said they are investigating “several” possible cases. One patient who died had used a marijuana vape from a licensed store in Oregon.

Cannabis commissioner Jen Flanagan said the agency should discuss whether to regulate additives.

“Everyone should be on alert when they’re vaping anything,” she said.

Vaporizers typically heat concentrated marijuana oil with battery-activated coils. Experts say the resulting vapor can harm the lungs.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified an oily vitamin E-derived compound as a possible common link among some cases, The Washington Post reported. However, federal officials stressed they have yet to make a definitive determination, and continue to analyze samples for a broad range of chemicals, including “cutting agents.”

The state cannabis commission is investigating whether products sold at licensed marijuana stores in Massachusetts include the vitamin E-related compound, a spokeswoman said.

Several Massachusetts marijuana executives said they are unaware of any licensed companies that use the compound, but that it is sometimes used by unregulated manufacturers to lighten their extracts’ color.

While questionable additives are more common in illicit marijuana cartridges, they are also present on the shelves of state-regulated marijuana shops.

“There are no rules about what can and can’t go in a vape pen,” said Chris Hudalla, a chemist who runs Milford-based marijuana testing company ProVerde Laboratories. “It’s absolutely problematic.”

New England Treatment Access, which runs a cannabis store in Brookline, sells inexpensive vape pens cut with propylene glycol, a common food additive that experts said could be dangerous to inhale. And Alternative Therapies Group, which runs a pot store in Salem, uses a similar chemical, polyethylene glycol, in some of its vapes. A study published this week in the Journal of Clinical Investigation found that inhaling the vapor of propylene glycol harmed the lungs of mice.

NETA said propylene glycol is safe, and no customers have reported negative health effects. Still, the company is developing other inexpensive vape cartridges that are free of the substance.

“I’m a chemist and I wouldn’t want to vape propylene glycol,” said Michael Kahn, the president of MCR Labs in Framingham, adding that the drug has only been shown to be safe for oral consumption.

While Chris Edwards, the chief executive of ATG, said he believes polyethylene glycol is safe, his company — like many others — is phasing it out in favor of terpenes, a class of aromatic chemicals found in cannabis and other plants.

While tiny amounts of terpenes are naturally present in marijuana and give different strains their scents, marijuana companies sometimes add significant quantities of both cannabis-derived and other terpenes to state-approved vape pods to improve flavor and viscosity.

That practice concerns even some marijuana company owners.

“Terpenes are pretty caustic,” said Brandon Pollock, chief executive of Theory Wellness, a marijuana retailer. “Take limonene — we use that to clean stainless steel tables. To put something like that in a vape that you’re going to heat up and inhale seems risky.’’

Recently, Pollock said, customers have been asking Theory Wellness about the safety of its vape cartridges. The firm’s vapes contain only cannabis and small quantities of cannabis-derived terpenes, he said, adding that the state should consider making that the rule.

“The whole point of legalization is to protect public health and make sure people are getting a product that’s tested and safe,” he said.

Marijuana consumers were surprised to learn that Massachusetts imposes no limits on vape additives.

“It’s messed up — who knows how they’re deriving it?” said Steven Cerrato, 27, a musician from Dedham who has regularly visited NETA. “Twenty, thirty years might go by and everyone might have a weird cancer.”

State rules require that marijuana products be tested for pesticides, heavy metals, potency, mold and other microbes, and residual solvent chemicals used in processing. Manufacturers also must list ingredients on product labels. However, the commission doesn’t verify whether the listed ingredients are accurate, or that additives are safe to heat and inhale.

Hudalla, the chemist, said he is also concerned about the cartridge hardware, nearly all of which is made in China. Using a “smoking machine” that puffs on vaporizers, his lab has found metals such as aluminum and chromium in the vapor from unregulated cartridges that were not present in the concentrate itself, suggesting the contamination came from the device’s heating coils.

While the commission doesn’t require regulated manufacturers to test their cartridges, some operators including Garden Remedies and NETA said they do so voluntarily.

Public health experts said regulated cartridges, which are tested and labeled, are far safer than those purchased on the street, but they said it’s a dangerous oversight to allow the pot industry to add any chemicals it chooses to vape cartridges.

At the same time, they conceded that state regulators face a difficult challenge: There is little data on the safety of marijuana vaporizers because the drug is still illegal under federal law.

Dr. Michael Siegel, a public health professor at Boston University, said state marijuana officials should probably regulate additives, but that consumers should not panic.

“These products have been on the market for awhile and we haven’t seen a problem with them,” he said.

As hundreds fall ill from apparent vaping-related lung illnesses, experts are warning that a gap in state marijuana regulations leaves consumers at risk.