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Vaping lung disease: Legal pot labs start testing for vitamin E in cannabis oil

By Jean Lotus
Vaping lung disease: Legal pot labs start testing for vitamin E in cannabis oil
As the FDA investigates an outbreak of serious vaping-related lung illnesses, private companies are starting to test for suspected thickening agents in legal cannabis vapes. Photo by lindsayfox/Pixabay

Sept. 12 (UPI) -- Some private cannabis testing laboratories plan to test for vitamin E acetate, a possible cutting agent for cannabis oil identified by the Food and Drug Administration as an ingredient in illicit vapes linked to an outbreak of lung diseases across the country.

After requests from more than 10 clients, BelCosta Labs in Long Beach, Calif., will begin testing for vitamin E acetate, CEO and President Myron Ronay said. Until now, legal cannabis testing companies in California have only tested cannabis products for evidence of pesticides, fungicides and heavy metals, such as lead and mercury.

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Now that vitamin E acetate has been identified by state and federal health agencies as a possible adulterant in black market cannabis vapes, legal companies want to "show consumers they are not using this product, even though it's not [yet] on the banned list," Ronay said.

At least six people have died and more than 450 have been hospitalized in 33 states after showing symptoms of a severe lung disease that health authorities have linked to vaping.

RELATED Vitamin E oil thickeners explored as vaping lung disease cause

The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that the FDA's Forensic Chemistry Center is testing e-cigarette cartridges, or vapes, submitted by patients.

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Sample vapes include both nicotine and THC cartridges, and "most of those samples with THC tested also contained significant amounts of Vitamin E acetate," the agency said last week.

The agency said it also is testing for a broad range of other chemicals, including "nicotine, THC and other cannabinoids along with cutting agents/diluents and other additives, pesticides, opioids, poisons, heavy metals and toxins."

RELATED Sixth vaping-related death confirmed by Kansas officials

Although the FDA lab declined to provide more information about testing, such testing in private labs is done through a chemical analysis process, Ronay said.

A sample of vitamin E acetate, or "traceable standard," is obtained through a source accredited with the International Organization for Standardization.

The substance being tested is run through both liquid and gas chromatic mass spectrometer instruments, which separate chemical compounds.

RELATED Trump administration to ban flavored e-cigarette products

Lab work is designed to search for specific substances, Ronay said, and there is no test instrument that can identify unknown substances in a sample. "You have to know what you're looking for."

Vitamin E oil, or tocopheryl acetate, was first identified by the New York State Department of Health as showing up in nearly all the cannabis-containing vape cartridges submitted by patients for testing, the agency said.

The oil is available for sale as an ingredient for topical lotions and dietary supplements, but has a boiling point of of 455 F and is not recommended to be inhaled, according to lab safety data sheets.

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The FDA said data was limited on vitamin E's effects on the lungs.

"Because consumers cannot be sure whether any THC vaping products may contain Vitamin E acetate, consumers are urged to avoid buying vaping products on the street, and to refrain from using THC oil or modifying/adding any substances to products purchased in stores," the FDA said in a statement. "Additionally, no youth should be using any vaping product, regardless of the substance."

The use of vitamin E acetate as a cutting agent for THC vape cartridges may be a new phenomenon linked to an explosion in the illicit THC vape market, said Mark Hoashi, founder of the Doja app, an online review site for all sorts of cannabis products, legal and illegal.

A new marketplace has sprung up selling vape packaging and branded vape cartridges, available in Los Angeles, or via internet mail order, Hoashi said.

"If you are just a hustler who just buys a bit of oil and you want to make some money, you can buy 100 packages at a time, fill the cartridges and sell them, and the packaging looks like an actual brand," he said.

One example is "Dank Vape," which appears to be a shell company that just sells packaging and empty cartridges for the illicit market, Hoashi said. Pictures of Dank Vape cartridges were released by health departments in Wisconsin and New York as among the THC vape materials diluted with vitamin E oil.

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In Kenosha County, Wis., the district attorney this week announced the arrest of a 20-year-old man who is accused of running a 10-person operation that filled between 3,000 and 5,000 illicit THC cartridges a day, which sold for $16 each. Tyler Huffhines was arrested with help from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

It was unclear whether the arrest was connected to THC vapes that appear to have sickened 34 Wisconsin patients with an average age of 19.

Counterfeiting legitimate legal cannabis brands has become a "major issue," said Nick Kovacevich, founder and CEO of Cypress, Calif.-based KushCo Holdings Inc.

"People spend millions developing a brand and then someone can buy the packaging [on the black market]," he said. More robust anti-counterfeiting measures are needed, he said.

Flavored e-cigarettes

The Trump administration and the Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday that the government would crack down on flavored e-cigarettes that the FDA has noted have been marketed to children.

Even though the FDA has not yet identified a connection between nicotine vaping and the mystery lung disease, the e-cigarette industry's reluctance to self-regulate is causing the investigation to be more complicated, experts said.

"Under the Tobacco Control Act, these e-cigarette companies are supposed to register with the FDA and report their products and ingredient lists," said Katharine Van Tassel, visiting professor of law at Case Western Reserve, who specializes in food and drug law.

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E-cigarette companies have been dragging their feet on compliance, Van Tassel said.

"It's very difficult without a list of ingredients in common products when hundreds of people are having symptoms of an illness."

Even though marijuana is illegal at the federal level and THC is not regulated by the FDA, in the past, the agency has stepped in and partnered with the DEA to investigate adulterants in illegal products, Van Tassel said. In 2018, the FDA released a warning about contaminated illegal synthetic cannabis products "K2" and "Spice."

Whether an ingredient in legal nicotine vaping products will be linked to the lung disease is uncertain.

"The FDA as a public health authority has a responsibility to give accurate information about possible causes," Van Tassel said. "It is a forensic process that has multiple steps, and can take time."

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