Is Your Vape Pen Toxic?

Two investigations have found toxic compounds in vapor pens. Here’s what they are, why they’re a problem, and how to avoid them.

Apr 13, 2017

How safe is your vape pen? Reports over the past two years have found that some pre-filled vaporizer cartridges may use additives that contain harmful carcinogens. These carcinogens in question do not come from the cannabis products, rather they come from thinning agents and other substances used to make a smooth liquid extraction. Here’s how some toxic vape oil additives might endanger patients.

Do toxic vape oil additives endanger patients?

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When it comes to cannabis, vaporizing or eating dried flower may be one of the safest ways to consume the herb. In recent years pre-filled vapor cartridges have taken off. Easy, discrete, and convenient, vape pens seem like a great way to get a high without the hassle.

However, two reports suggest that some components in vape oils may be harmful to the human body. Back in 2015, Project CBD released a report by Dr. Jahan Marcu, a Ph.D. and cannabis expert, suggesting that additives propylene glycol (PG) and polyethylene glycol (PEG) may transform into dangerous carcinogens when heated.

Specifically, the thinning agents transform into formaldehyde and acetaldehyde (produced by PEG only). Formaldehyde is the same toxic component that is used to preserve cadavers.

Formaldehyde has also been linked to birth defects and low birth weight. In his piece, Marcu highlights a 2010 study that found that PG that simply circulates in the air can trigger asthma attacks, eczema, and allergy.

In another 2012 report, students exposed to formaldehyde while working with cadavers often experienced immediate symptoms like a congested nose, skin irritations, and redness of the eyes. Students also experience disturbed sleep, dry, itchy throat, and nausea. After smelling formaldehyde, it’s not uncommon for students to faint.

Marcu mentions in his report that propylene glycol tends to lodge deep into the lungs, and cannot be exhaled again through respiration. While immediate health effects may not be noticeable (especially after consuming psychoactive cannabis), there is no way to quantify the risk of chronic PG exposure over long periods of time.

Have you been inhaling toxic vapor?

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When consumed orally (not inhaled), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers PG to be a substance that is “generally recognized as safe.” However, the FDA has not examined the effects of heating or inhaling PG.

Once heated, various chemical reactions occur that make this compound much more questionable than most would like to believe.

A recent study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine backs up Marcu’s concerns. The study looked at PG, PEG, and two natural additives, coconut oil and vegetable glycerine.

Their work confirmed that PG decomposes to formaldehyde when heated to 446˚F (230˚C). While most vaporizers start off at a lower temperature, holding on to a button or taking long inhales can increase the heat.

Even medium-chain triglycerides, like coconut oil, can produce very small amounts of the carcinogen acetaldehyde, a compound often found in plants that are thought to contribute to an alcohol hangover. Vegetable glycerine appears to be the safest additive. The study authors write,

[F]ormaldehyde inhalation has been linked to increased incidence of myeloid leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancer.

The scientists noted. They determined that the amount of formaldehyde produced by heating pure PEG is comparable to the amount of formaldehyde one inhales when smoking a single tobacco cigarette.

Medium-chain triglycerides produced a tiny amount of acetaldehyde (approximately 33 times less than PEG). And vegetable glycerin did not produce detectable amounts of any of the toxins studied.

How to find safer cannabis products

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The number one way to find safer cannabis products is to find a good dispensary. Dispensaries that stay up on their research will source products that do not contain additives that are known to cause harm.

Unfortunately, it takes some work on the part of the consumer to find locations that sell safe, laboratory tested products.

In general, here are some tips for safely sourcing your cannabis medicines:

  • Buy cartridges that are pre-packaged and contain ingredient lists
  • Buy organic products
  • Buy laboratory tested products
  • Look up the brand online and contact them to ask about PG and PEG
  • Opt for brands that contain vegetable glycerine, coconut oil or MCT oil are the next best options
  • Opt for products that contain as little plastic as possible
  • Opt for refillable cartridges that allow you to safely source vape liquids and fill them yourself

Unfortunately, vapor pens and other novel cannabis inventions have not been subject to rigorous consumer safety testing. To avoid potential harms from vapor pens, switching to a portable vaporizer for dried flower is recommended.

When sourcing dried flower, it’s best to buy organic products that have passed state laboratory testing standards.

Apr 13, 2017