In nearly all of the cases where users have been experiencing pneumonia like symptoms or worse, black market vape carts have been involved. These products are made outside of the existing regulatory framework in place for the cannabis industry. While many of the regulations on the cannabis industry are very loose (especially on finished products), most of the serious players in the industry go above and beyond to ensure that they are exceeding current regulations and setting themselves up to meet the requirements that will surely come with the next round of FDA and USDA regulations. In a typical round of testing at ProVerde Labs, we test for heavy metals, solvents, microbiological contamination, and pesticides among other things that are more helpful with characterization than product safety. The problem with these black market products is that they aren’t undergoing this kind of rigorous testing.
In recent reports, the rash of illnesses has been blamed on vitamin E acetate and pesticide contamination. Tocopheryl acetate, or vitamin E acetate, is the more shelf stable version of vitamin E as it is less prone to oxidation. This, combined with its consistency and color being very similar to that of hemp oils and THC oils, makes it a great candidate for cutting THC oils with in these black market vape carts. The issue is largely with the heating and inhalation of any of these long chain lipids. Aggregation of these oils in the lungs leads to pneumonia like symptoms which may be made worse by the acetate form of vitamin E that is being widely found in the black market products. The change in polarity of the molecule brought about by the addition of the acetate group makes it far better at accumulating on the lining of your lungs than vitamin E or other similar oils, compounding the negative effects.
Taking a step back and looking at the pesticides that have been found in some of these products, myclobutanil in particular is very concerning. In a recent article from NBC News, 10 out of 10 black market vape products tested positive for pesticides and all 10 contained myclobutanil (as much as 50x the allowed limit in CA). This pesticide is especially concerning because it acts as a hydrogen cyanide emitter. Myclobutanil is a very effective fungicide that prevents the powdery mildew that is the bane of cannabis growers’ existence, and it has been popular in use on grape vines. When heated, however, myclobutanil emits hydrogen cyanide which is incredibly dangerous and toxic to humans. Because of the dangers associated with inhalation, myclobutanil has been banned for use on cannabis in multiple states. This is why it is particularly concerning that it is showing up in the black market products.
So what are we supposed to do about this? Well the first thing we should NOT be doing is banning all vape products as was done in Massachusetts. Taking such sweeping action may earn political points with those prone to emotional, knee-jerk reactions, but it also pushes people directly into the black market to buy products where we know for sure the problem is coming from. In the same NBC News article where 10 out of 10 black market products were found to contain dangerous pesticides, none of the products from licensed dispensaries contained pesticides. While only anecdotal, this is a promising sign that products carried by licensed distributors are much safer than the products we know are making people sick and these distributors should not be punished for the actions of individuals cutting their products with materials that we know to be dangerous when consumed in this way.