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Inhaling Cannabinoids - Concerns About Vaping and Health

As of October 8, 2019 there have been twenty-six vaping and e-cigarette related deaths in 21 states. That, along with the growing number of lung-injury cases (nearly 1,300) tied to these products has Americans asking how the “safer way to smoke” became such a life-threatening issue?

The answer seems to be a complicated one as the war on vapes is happening on multiple fronts. As the negative headlines rolled out this summer, e-cigarettes took the brunt of the blame. In September, a story from CBS News said the Trump Administration was mulling the idea of banning all non-tobacco flavors of e-cigarettes. According to Health and Human Secretary, Alex Azar, vape flavors inspired by candy and cereal were clearly being marketed to a younger population. "We're seeing a surge in high school and middle school kids using these flavored products," Azar said from the official White House Twitter account. "We've got to stop it. We're going to have a whole generation of children addicted to nicotine, and that's just horrible.”

But just as it seemed like we had the culprit, Kevin Burns of Juul (an American vaping juggernaut) joined CBS This Morning and defended his company by pointing to reports that indicated THC-related products were responsible for the rash of lung illnesses in America. While Burns was ousted from Juul late last month, he may have raised an important point.

The CDC says that 78 percent of vape-related patients had a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC (the psychotic component of marijuana) or using both THC and nicotine. While just 17 percent of patients limited their e-cigarette use to only nicotine products. Even more, CannaSafe, a cannabis-specific lab in California, revealed that of 12 black-market THC samples, all of them contain pesticides and some tested positive for heavy metals or lead.

But to add to the confusion, a new study revealed that a slew of disease-causing heavy metals like aluminum, chromium, and nickel were readily found in tank-style e-cigarettes. These cartridges can carry tobacco products just as easily as THC but the issue appears to be the battery in both instances. Most of these aerosol tanks are powered by high-voltage atomizing units. And when these batteries heat over 300 degrees Celsius, they can release harmful byproducts.

Given the amount of public alarm, legislators are still trying to figure out a solution. Some have argued that all vapes should be illegal. While others say a sweeping ban of vapes would make the vape market an unregulated one, meaning bad actors could continue the sell contaminated products at low prices with little concern for legal repercussions.

The idea of a stronger black market has states like Pennsylvania issuing statements to push consumers towards state-licensed medical marijuana businesses.

California Gov. Gavin Newsome also thinks banning vapes is a bad idea and announced a $20 million campaign to boost public awareness on vaping and its risks.

For now, it appears there is no concrete rule to follow as even the FDA says it “does not have enough data to identify the cause, or causes, of the lung injuries in these cases.” So until the government sends down a decision, we’re likely to stay in a grey-zone where good and bad actors share the same market. Which means that it will be up to consumers to figure out who they’re buying from. Aside from stopping altogether, the best way for vapers to stay safe is to buy from legal, well regulated, and professional sources.

The dangerous ingredients in these vapable products are not completely understood. While Vitamin-E acetate has been implicated, we also know the propylene glycol (PG) could be a culprit in long-term negative effects. Propylene glycol is an FDA approved food additive, but the carrier oil's health effects have not been thoroughly researched as an inhalant. Above 450 degrees Fahrenheit, PG will convert to formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. While some vape pen manufacturers control the maximum temperature such that formaldehyde risks are eliminated, many refillable vaping devices have adjustable voltage and therefore could create a cancer risk.

Because inhalation is a necessary delivery method in cases where the patient only has a few seconds to respond (think: panic attacks, oncoming seizures, and migraine headaches), it is imperative that the cannabis industry address these concerns quickly. To that end, the Stanley Brothers (of Charlotte's Web fame) are investing $1 million to investigate short and long term health effects of various inhaled carrier oils. In the mean time, like so much of the rest of the unregulated hemp industry, it is a buyer beware situation. Know your source and be diligent in selecting the products you put in your body.

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