Hospitalizations from vaping have slowed significantly since the fall, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially linked vitamin E acetate, a vaping additive used to dilute nicotine and marijuana oils, to the vast majority of the illnesses reported. Although most of those cases stemmed from black market products, vaping liquid sold at regulated marijuana dispensaries has also been connected to several illnesses, with some THC vaping oils sold by dispensaries testing positive for vitamin E.
According to one cannabis laboratory, though, vitamin E acetate is a naturally occurring substance in virtually all plant products we use, which is why vaping oil manufacturers that don’t add the substance to their products have seen it show up in their test results. To learn more about naturally occurring vitamin E, we caught up with Frank Taylor, co-founder of cannabis testing facility AgriScience Labs.
Westword: What exactly is vitamin E acetate, and why is it added to vaping cartridges?
Frank Traylor: Vitamin E is used on skin, and it’s considered to be safe [for that]. So was vitamin E acetate. The illegal vape cartridges, though, they’re so thin. If it’s thin, vape oils are considered of lower quality, so people would use it as a thickener to make these cartridges look better than they were. In tobacco and THC cartridges, doctors started seeing lung illnesses, and the common thread was vaping. Measurement from the lungs of virtually every one of these patients showed vitamin E.
Did vitamin E ever show up in your lab’s testing? Is that something Colorado marijuana testing labs are set up to do?
No one really knew about the health risks, not even the people adding it to their cartridges, so no one was really testing for it. But when the CDC started looking into vitamin E acetate and said it really was dangerous, our clients said their customers wanted something that shows their products were tested for vitamin E. So we developed a method to test for it, and we found vitamin E acetate at a level of 400 parts per million in products that had never added it during the production process. That was kind of confusing, but it turns out that vitamin E, which is common in plants, converts to acetate in small levels like that.
How could vitamin E acetate show up in a vape product without it being added during the production process?
In any plant product, you should see some vitamin E acetate that occurs naturally in those plants. I don’t know how marijuana compares with tobacco or other plants in regard to that, but we have learned that 400 parts per million is natural, which is different from synthetic vitamin E acetate. We contacted the CDC, which gave us the form of vitamin E acetate that’s being found in vapers’ lungs so we can develop our methods and better discriminate between different types of vitamin E acetate. That could be a way to determine who’s adding this synthetically, and when it’s occurring naturally.
Are there any links between natural vitamin E and vaping-related illnesses?
That’s what fascinating about this: Health officials haven’t made a discrimination, they just said it was vitamin E acetate. I think it’d be a good guess that the synthetic version isn’t great for your lungs, and if you add vitamin E acetate to cut concentrates, it’ll be about 200 times the levels of natural substances. So that’s where I think you’ll see a divide. The natural vitamin E has been in vaping products for a long time.
How do you think Colorado’s new vaping additive bans will affect the cannabis vaping industry?
As is usual, sometimes the language isn’t terribly clear. The new rules say you can’t add vitamin E to vaping products, but it also says you can’t sell anything with vitamin E in it. But we’ve been working with the state Marijuana Enforcement Division [to explain this]. For instance, water is allowed to have a certain amount of arsenic in it. So I think the MED is looking into how to stop vitamin E being an addition, while we’re looking to set a certain level of detection, such as a 1 or 0.5 percent threshold for vitamin E. But if I were a concentrate manufacturer, I’d want clarification.
Is there a way for concentrate suppliers or infused-product makers to remove vitamin E at the end of the process?
That’s a good question. I think they’d have to modify their processes, which would probably be expensive. My guess is that they’d wait to see if there was a danger at these minute levels first. Distilling these products can also remove certain compounds.
Would vaping solventless or CO2 concentrates lessen the risk of consuming vitamin E?
No, not that we’ve seen after testing from several different manufacturers. One of our customers believes terpenes can speed up the conversion of vitamin E acetate, but I don’t really have much more information on that. He’s a smart guy, though, so I’d like to find out more.
Is there anything consumers can look out for while shopping for vapes for more peace of mind?
Buy products from a legal market that is under regulatory scrutiny. The CDC website shows the weekly number of people admitted to hospitals from vaping, and it was sort of an exponential growth in mid-September. But since then, interestingly, it’s dropped significantly. I think that’s a commentary on regulators looking into this and really slowing down the incidents. In Colorado, at least, the regulators jumped right on this and contacted us.