Is Vaping THC Safe?
The growth of vaping
Vape pens are they light and small enough to slide into a pocket or purse. They are clean, creating no mess or waste and need no special skills, knowledge or dexterity. Not only have existing cannabis users switched from rolling joints to charging their vapes, but as the regulations surrounding medical and recreational cannabis changes and the cannabis industry expands, new cannabis users are attracted by the ease and simplicity vaping offers. A 2018 study estimated that the majority of spending on cannabis concentrate was for pre-filled vape cartridges.
Vaping offers a more convenient, more discreet and, for many users, a more satisfying alternative to smoking. But is it also a healthier option? Over the summer of 2019 the media highlighted a number of cases of serious illnesses and even fatalities, which have put the safety of vaping under the spotlight.
This article addresses the specific question of whether it is safe to vape THC and suggests practical steps consumers can take to ensure the vape THC as safely as possible.
Vaping and THC
Tetrahydrocannabinol or, as it is usually referred to,THC, is one of the compounds contained in the resin of cannabis plants. While strains vary, cannabis plants typically contain around 12 percent THC. This is important for growers and users as THC is the chemical responsible for cannabis’ psychoactive effects. THC interacts with the body as soon as it is ingested, producing a set of widely-recognisable sensations – a heightened awareness of colors and sounds, changes to the perception of time and feelings of pleasure. This characteristic THC ‘high’ can last for up to three hours. Research into the long-term effects of THC is ongoing but has revealed no confirmed damaging effects. With that said, cannabis users may want to consider the different options for ingesting THC.
In its natural state, cannabis contains THCA, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid. THCA requires heart to break it down into THC. The ‘activation’ of THC has traditionally been achieved by one of two methods – igniting it in a pipe or rolled in paper, or cooking into an oil.
The obvious health risks involved in smoking tobacco have significantly affected attitudes cannabis. Younger cannabis users, in particular, have negative perceptions of igniting cannabis and inhaling the smoke. Smoking and its health risks can now be avoided by choosing alternative consumption methods. The most popular of these is vaporization. Also known as hash oil pens, vape pens use a battery and heating element to heat cannabis oil or distillates until active compounds – terpenes and cannabinoids – are vaporized. This fine mist is inhaled by the user.
One study on the use of vape pens concludes that “users of joints, blunts, pipes, and water pipes might decrease respiratory symptoms by switching to a vaporizer.” Cannabis oils are vaporized at lower temperatures. Studies show that this allows the cannabis to remain “cool enough to avoid the smoke and toxins associated with combustion.” A 2014 survey found cannabis users believed vape pens were not only superior in terms of taste, smell and effectiveness, but that they also had health benefits, while research in 2016 showed 61% of vape users thought vaping healthier than smoking.
Vaping and safety concerns
Medical studies usually concur with the views of users, advising that vaping is “generally recognized as a safer alternative to combusted” products, with the important caveat that these new products vary enormously and that it is impossible to group all such products together. Overall, the risk of serious damaging effects was considered to be low.
However, in 2019 there was reported to be an outbreak of severe lung illnesses which appeared to be related to vaping. Cases were reported across 49 states and a number of fatalities occurred.
While many of these incidents are serious and the cause needs to be properly researched, it is important to place them within the wider context of the number of people using vape pens and the comparative risks involved with smoking. By 2016 an estimated 3.7% of Americans were regular users of vape products and while some have experienced health problems, the number of people this has affected (1,299 in 2019) needs to be put against the 480,000 deaths per year in the United States for which smoking is responsible.
Nevertheless, it is understandable that consumers should have questions over the safety of vaping and both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA are investigating these health concerns. Whilst vaping products vary considerably, e-liquids almost always have two basic aspects in common – they contain varying concentrations of nicotine or THC combined with liquid solvents designed to deliver the active elements. The FDA reported that while some of those suffering from serious health issues used e-cigarette products containing nicotine, others reported using both nicotine and THC. In other words, what all patients had in common was an exposure to the chemicals nicotine and THC were combined with. By September the Center for Disease Control and Prevention identified the likely cause of the outbreak of lung illnesses as a chemical exposure and the investigation increasingly focussed on the use of cutting agents.
Addressing concerns over cutting agents
While the issue of cutting agents made media headlines in 2019 it is not a new issue. Cutting agents, such as PEG (polyethylene glycol), PG (propylene glycol) and VG (vegetable glycerin) blend with solvents to help form an even solution.
The particular blend of oil is instrumental in determining the experience of vaping. When cannabis is distilled the evocative aroma and flavors associated with smoking weed are often lost. Producers may re-introduce terpenes from cannabis or use the artificial flavors often found in e-cigarettes. Moreover, to enhance the production of the ‘vape cloud’ and the ‘mouthfeel’ of the vape, many producers also add chemicals to their solutions. PG is used to enhance flavor and mimic the feel of taking a drag on a real cigarette, while VG is added to create large clouds of vapor.
There are two main concerns related to these chemicals. Firstly, inhalation can have negative effects on those who suffer from asthma, causing ocular and upper airway irritation. Secondly, there is a worry that when heated both PEG and PG may break down into the carcinogens, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. Prior to the lung-related illnesses in 2019, a sensitivity to PG or VG had already led some users to reduce their exposure to these chemicals.
Samples tested by the FDA shifted the focus to a particular cutting agent, used to thicken cannabis oils – Vitamin E acetate. Vitamin E acetate was normally used in low concentrations by producers to manage the consistency of vape oils. However, due to decreasing cannabis supplies, illicit sellers may have been increasing the proportion of thickening agents to more than 50%. Vitamin E acetate is not considered harmful and is used in many oils such as canola, soy, and corn One theory is that when inhaled, however, it causes an immune response, prompting the onset of pneumonia-like symptoms.
While the investigation is ongoing, the FDA advised against inhaling Vitamin E acetate, with the added warning that, under the current regulations, consumers may not know for sure whether THC oils contain potentially unsafe agents. There have been particular warnings against buying vaping products from unverified sources.
So how can consumers protect themselves from harmful additives? While the use of cutting agents in vape pens undergo more testing, many vape pen users looking to avoid their use have switched to ‘raw’ cannabis oils. In ‘raw cartridges’, producers use this cannabis oil unadulterated. The safest option for anyone concerned about cutting agents is to purchase only vape pen products that are ‘additive-free’ available at Back Side Buds. Choose a product that only contains full spectrum cannabis plant oil with no additives included and to choose a trusted brand, tested by a Health Canada approved lab, to ensure you are consuming a safe product.
Addressing concerns over metal contamination
As well as concerns surrounding the chemicals used as cutting agents, there are also worries about potential for more toxic elements to be present in e-cigarettes. It has been speculated that vaping may lead to damaging exposure to metals.
Research in 2018 found that the e-liquids tested did not contain significant amounts of toxic metals. However, it was discovered that the dispenser and aerosol did contain levels of chromium, nickel, and lead. Nearly half of the aerosol samples tested contained levels of lead higher than the limits imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Concentrations of nickel, chromium and manganese were also close to or above safe limits.
Moreover, notable amounts of metals were also found within e-liquids exposed to heating coils within e-cigarette tanks. The research does not examine exactly how metals might transfer from the metal coil vape pens use as heating elements, but it does raise the possibility that metals may leech from the coils into the liquid.
The heating elements in vape pens are coils which can be made from ceramic or glass but are most often nickel-chromium wire, the same heating device you can find in a toaster. If contamination happens, it is likely from these coils. Another possible source of contamination are the silver tips, also composed of nickel and chrome plating, used by some vape pens.
Discussing a ‘safe’ level of lead contamination is clearly unsatisfactory – there is no level of lead anyone would like to encounter. However, it is a fact that there are varying levels of lead in our food, the soil and the rain. The best we can hope for is to monitor lead levels and have reliable protection from ingesting large amounts. One positive step is that from July 2019 California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Colorado restricted lead in cannabis products to .05 PPM, bringing it in-line with the FDA’s regulations for ingested food. A useful reference point is the fact that one pack of 20 cigarettes contains 0.97-2.64 PPM.
When considering the risk from toxic metals, the comparison with smoking is worth making. One study showed that vape pen users have far fewer toxic substances in their bodies than smokers, while another suggested cancer risks from vaping are only one percent of those from smoking.
But for many who choose to vape THC the advantage of being safer than smoking, even considerably safer, is (and should probably not be) enough. In order to further reduce their risk of potential contamination consumers should search for vape pens with ceramic or glass elements and plastic tips as used by medical devices. Only choose a high-quality product that comes with storage and user guidelines. Consumers can further protect themselves by considering how their vape pen heats the liquid. As noted, one of the advantages of vaping is that THC does not need to be heated to such high temperatures. This advantage can be negated if the device’s battery is used to heat the liquid for longer. Hold down the button for only as long as you need to, or choose a product activated by the user drawing on it.
The only way to completely avoid any risk of lead contamination is not to buy vape cartridges containing metal parts. At present the only true lead-free vape cartridges are those which are 100% ceramic. Vape cartridges sold at Back Side Buds are unlikely to be lead-free and consumers should be wary unless there is a clear statement that the product is “100% ceramic.” To be sure you are buying lead-free it is necessary to know the exact product you are buying and who produced it.