Vaping CBD carries unique risks
People like vaping because it’s a smokeless, convenient, and fast-acting way to consume pleasure-inducing chemicals including THC and nicotine. It’s also potentially quite dangerous—and that’s also true when it comes to vaping cannabidiol, the popular cannabis-derived compound known as CBD. In fact, thanks to a regulatory no-man’s-land, a consumer craze, and manufacturers who dilute extract with oils better suited for salad dressings, CBD vapes are uniquely risky.
As of Oct. 10, more than 1,200 cases of a mysterious vaping-related illness, and 26 related deaths had been reported to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is advising consumers to “consider refraining” from vaping altogether. Of the 771 patients the CDC previously reported data on, the majority reported vaping THC and/or nicotine. Only about 17% reported having vaped a CBD product, but there is still good reason for CBD enthusiasts to take note—and even to be especially cautious.
“There’s no regulations.”
“There’s no regulations, there’s no one telling companies what to do,” says Jonathan Miller, general counsel for the trade group US Hemp Roundtable. “I don’t want to say it incentivizes bad behavior but it certainly doesn’t crack down on bad behavior.”
While no single brand, product, or ingredient has been identified as the cause of the 1,000-plus cases of vaping-associated pulmonary injury—first called VAPI and now renamed EVALI—we do know that many of the affected patients were vaping illicit, and therefore unregulated, THC products. Tests showed many of those contained vitamin E acetate, an oil derived from vitamin E—which is considered safe for skincare but not for inhalation.
We can’t reasonably expect dealers of illegal cannabis vapes would test their products for safety or share ingredient lists with customers. The thing is, consumers can’t necessarily expect that sort of testing or transparency from manufacturers of hemp-derived CBD vapes either—even if they’re buying them from vape shops, specialty stores, or websites that don’t appear to be breaking the law. The category is completely unregulated. And reckless players are not limited to labeling their products as THC. In September, the Associated Press tested 30 vape products marketed as CBD from brands that authorities had flagged as suspect, and found that 10 contained dangerous synthetic marijuana and many had little to no CBD at all.
While the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been struggling to research and regulate both CBD and vaping separately, the agency has allowed manufacturers to flood the market with both types of products. In the FDA’s eyes, none of these products are legal, as they have not been evaluated or regulated for their safety. And where these two categories overlap in CBD vapes is a grey area that’s ripe for exploitation at the risk of consumers’ health. According to analysts at Cowen and Company, that grey area was worth an estimated $40 million in sales in 2018.
Meanwhile Miller, along with many others in the cannabis and hemp industries, is eager for lawmakers to create legal frameworks for their products. They point to the reported illnesses from black-market vapes as proof that a legal, regulated cannabis market is a safer one.
A brief legal primer
The difference between cannabis and industrial hemp in the eyes of US law is the content of THC, the intoxicating compound in cannabis: If a plant contains more than 0.3% THC by dry weight, it’s cannabis, and still considered federally illegal despite the many states with legalized recreational and medicinal use. If it’s less 0.3% THC by dry weight, it’s considered hemp, which is being incrementally regulated by government agencies. The 2018 Farm Bill removed industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, essentially declassifying it as a dangerous controlled substance of no medical use, clarifying its status as an agricultural product, and making it legal under federal law under some circumstances.
In May of this year, the FDA held a public hearing where more than 100 stakeholders—patients, manufacturers, and researchers among them—testified about their experiences with CBD. Now, the industry is waiting for a timeline for regulation, which was expected this autumn, but has yet to appear. In the meantime, the FDA considers interstate sale of CBD as a food additive or nutritional supplement (ie., all those candies, canned sodas, and tinctures) to be illegal. But it’s not enforcing the law so long as operators in the estimated $590 million market for hemp-derived CBD adhere to the broader rules for the categories they fall in, whether that’s food, supplements, or cosmetics.
But here’s where it gets complicated, because the FDA hasn’t regulated vaping yet.
“You get kind of a double grey area here,” says Miller. “CBD is considered illegal by the FDA, and vaping is now viewed pretty hostilely by the FDA. It really is a great unknown … Without the FDA engaged formally, it makes it a lot tougher for consumers to figure out what’s a good product and what’s not.”
You might be safer with weed
If you’re in a state where weed is legal, you might be safer smoking (or vaping) it, by going to a licensed dispensary for a high CBD-strain or vape that’s subject to the same regulations that cannabis is. In states like California and Oregon, where cannabis is regulated by state agencies, products with THC are subject to testing for contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals, solvents, and mold-related toxins. Again, hemp-derived CBD products are currently subject to … nothing.
“It’s the wild, wild west,” says Aaron Riley, the CEO of the Los Angeles-based cannabis testing lab CannaSafe, of the CBD landscape. Riley says that many of the CBD products CannaSafe tests would fail if they were subject to the same exacting standards as products containing THC—but they’re not. “You don’t have to get licensed. You don’t have to do any type of testing at all.”
Which isn’t to say that no one is testing CBD products. As the Hemp Roundtable’s Miller said, “some very well-meaning companies will try to promote the best practices.”
Some of those companies are those that come from the cannabis industry, and therefore have years of experience with extraction and testing.
The northern California-based company Bloom Farms—which has been in the cannabis extracts business since 2014—started selling hemp-derived CBD products online in January, and puts them through the same testing processes as their products with THC, which are under the strict purview of the California Bureau of Cannabis Control. Customers can also download a certificate of analysis from Bloom’s website that provides test results from a third-party lab, but that’s far from standard in the CBD space.
An oily situation
And of course, not all CBD vapes are created equal. Many extracts sold in vape pens and cartridges are diluted with other substances, such as medium-chain-triglyceride, or MCT, oils—fats that are frequently derived from natural sources such as coconut oil. While these are known to be safe to eat—and are often found in CBD tinctures—there’s little if any evidence that it’s safe to vape them, despite some manufacturers touting them as an all-natural ingredient.
“It’s totally horrifying to me,” says Katie Stem, an herbalist who cofounded the Oregon-based cannabis company Peak Extracts in 2014, and has researched plant medicine and chemistry at Oregon Health & Science University. “People should not be cutting [cannabis extracts] with any sort of culinary lipid.” Stem says that with an extraction process using carbon dioxide as a solvent, it’s possible to create a vape-able distillate containing only plant material, without any additives.
Quartz contacted two manufacturers of CBD vape pens that contain MCT oil, and neither has replied to our messages. Bloom Farms’ unflavored CBD vape contains no MCTs or other cutting agents. The company’s flavored CBD vape pens contain trace amounts of MCTs—less than 0.3% according to a company representative—and the company is currently phasing them out.
Neal Benowitz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied the pharmacology of e-cigarettes, says that CO2 extraction process is “pretty clean,” and the results are well-known.
“People have been vaping them for a long time, and haven’t had a problem,” he says. “That seems to be relatively safe, and that’s a solvent that dissolves them. The question now is, when you start messing with that process, what are you adding to it?”
Benowitz said the effects of vaping MCT oil, however, is an understudied area.
“I’m concerned about it,” he says. “But I don’t have any data.”
Stem speculates the tendency to mix cannabis extract with MCTs might come down to greed or ignorance, and a misunderstanding of the term “cannabis oil,” which is something of a misnomer since CBD and THC extracts are not fatty lipids at all.
“They think, ‘Oh, it’s an oil. I can mix it with another oil and that will thin it and it will make it easier to flow into our vape pen,’ and it’s not harmful because we’re already smoking oil. Well, no. Cannabis extract is not an oil,” says Stem.
Kathryn Melamed, a pulmonologist at University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center who has seen patients affected by vaping, agrees that smoking oils can be dangerous, and notes that the vaping-related illness bears some resemblance to lipoid pneumonia—a direct reaction to lipids or oils in the lungs.
“While one type of substance—like vitamin E or maybe some other oil—can be ingested and metabolized through the gut, the lung just doesn’t have that ability,” she says. “So then it becomes much more dangerous, and a particle that the lung wants to try to fight and expel. And that’s the inflammatory response that you get.”
The Dangers of Vaping with a CBD Oil Pen
Vaping can be a very effective means of consuming CBD. However, a lot of CBD vape users don’t realize that not all products out there are created equal.
On the contrary, one has to choose their brands and cartridges very carefully. This is necessary to ensure that you’re getting a quality, effective, and most importantly, safe product that’s free of contaminants and other health hazards.
In this article, we point out some of the biggest dangers of vaping that you need to be on the lookout for. Given the current lack of regulations in the cannabis industry, a lot of companies out there are producing cartridges with virtually no regard for health or safety.
So, we’re here to try and make sure you know what to look for when choosing the best CBD vape juice for your specific condition.
Cuticle Wax in CBD Vape Liquid: What You Should Know
One of the lesser talked about aspects of CBD vaping safety is the potential respiratory hazard of cuticle wax. Cuticle waxes are basically the oily, fatty outer layer of lipids that cover the surface of most flowering cannabis plants, including hemp.
When these plants are smoked (with a bowl, joint, bong, etc.), the wax layer is burned away. This method of consumption isn’t believed to cause much concern in terms of respiratory health.
However, it’s known that because vaping incorporates significantly lower temperatures than smoking, it does not burn away the wax layer. Instead, it’s believed that the oily, waxy bits may collect together and eventually settle in the lungs, which may produce serious long-term health concerns.
In fact, as part of a statement to Rolling Stone magazine in October 2017, experts at Steep Hill Labs spoke of the potential dangers of vaping CBD oil. Steep Hill is an independent cannabis analysis company with several locations across the U.S. They suggested that vaping CBD oil may potentially cause these waxes to collect in the lungs and form solidified granulomas at some point down the road.
While this is no more than speculation at this point (there haven’t been any clinical studies to verify whether or not this is the case), it’s cause for concern.
In terms of what you can do to avoid CBD vape oils that have cuticle waxes, you can look for products that have undergone a process called winterization. Winterization of CBD oil is a technique that involves removing all (or at least a portion of) the waxes, fatty acids, and lipids, which have higher melting points than other parts of the plant.
If you’re unsure whether or not a specific CBD vape juice has undergone winterization, call the company and ask them. If they can’t tell you, then steer clear and look for another brand.
Thinning Agents in CBD Vape Oil: Another Potential Health Concern
A much more talked about safety concern of CBD vape oils that’s discussed far more often than cuticle waxes, is the potential presence of harsh chemicals that end up in the end product as thinning agent residues.
Raw cannabis oil that contains active CBD extract is much too viscous, or thick, to be used in vape pens with electric heater coils. Thus, the concentrate has to be treated in order to reduce the viscosity so that it can be effectively and efficiently vaped.
Cannabis oil is too thick for vaping. Manufacturers must thin them before use, and some use dangerous chemicals.
There are a few different ways in which this can be done. However, you need to be extremely wary as many cheap products (produced by inexperienced manufacturers) use harsh and even toxic chemical thinning agents in order to cut costs.
Two of the most commonly used chemical thinning agents are propylene glycol and polyethylene glycol. Both of these chemicals (propylene glycol and polyethylene glycol) can potentially break down into carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. This is particularly true when they’re sublimated in high-temp vape pen cartridges.
And lastly, a 2010 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that inhaling propylene glycol – even in low concentrations – can potentially induce asthma, allergic reactions, and other respiratory complications.
Is CBD Vape Safe for the Lungs?
As mentioned above, the use of thinning agents and the presence of cuticle waxes in vape oils can be dangerous.
Vape e-liquids are vaporized and inhaled through the lungs, meaning they can cause problems for the respiratory system. Concerns such as asthma and lipoid pneumonia, all lung-related issues, still plague the industry.
Common indicators of lung or respiratory irritation can include:
- Constant coughing
- Shortness of breath
- Discomfort while breathing
- Coughing up mucus or blood
If you experience any of these symptoms while or after vaping, it’s important to stop immediately and visit a healthcare provider.
So, is CBD vape safe for lungs? Not always, but luckily for vape enthusiasts, there are ways to severely reduce the risk of lung irritation and discomfort. Find out more below.
How to Vape CBD Safely: What Can You Do?
Ultimately, one of the most important things you can do to ensure your health and safety when vaping CBD is to invest in a high-quality vape pen. It’s being suggested more and more that the temperature of your pen’s heater coil is critical in terms of producing efficient vaporization that avoids the breakdown of thinning agents into carcinogens such as formaldehyde.
A lot of vape pens out there use e-coils that sublimate the oil at extremely high temperatures – far higher than what’s even remotely necessary.
As Dr. Jahan Marcu, Chief Scientific Officer at Americans for Safe Access, puts it, “the market is flooded [right now] with substandard products that have questionable safety… these companies are [ultimately] doing their safety testing on the public and their loved ones.”
And that’s likely putting it nicely.
We put together an article not too long ago on some of the best CBD liquids for vaping. It also discussed the differences between CBD vape liquid and regular CBD oil. That may be a good place to start in terms of picking out the best CBD vape cartridge that’s best suited to you and your needs.
Is It Safe to Vape CBD Oil?
Despite the health worries, vaping CBD still remains a popular method of consumption. Why?
Some research suggests that vaping increases the bioavailability of CBD when compared to other methods such as oral or topical use. This means that a higher concentration of the cannabinoid can reach the endocannabinoid system, causing a greater impact.
Additionally, the marketplace is full of flavored vape oils and impressive vaporization systems, making the physical act of vaping an enjoyable experience.
But this still begs the question; is it safe to vape CBD oil?
Research into the long-term effects of vape use is still very much in its infancy; this means it’s very difficult to surmise just how safe it is.
However, by seeking out high-quality e-liquids, users can still have an enjoyable vaping experience while trying to minimize the risk.
Find out who says what…
Final Thoughts on the Dangers of Vaping CBD
Like we mentioned, one of the most important things you can likely do in terms of making sure you’re maximizing health and safety while vaping CBD is to invest in a high-quality pen. This is particularly true if you’re vaping often, such as to provide relief from chronic conditions like pain, anxiety, depression, or insomnia.
The fact of the matter is that very little is actually known in regard to the long-term health effects of CBD vape juice. Much more certainly needs to be done in order to learn about potential respiratory complications and other health concerns that may arise further down the road.
For the time being, all you can do is know the contents of your CBD e-liquid, know how it was manufactured, and ensure that you buy from a well-known and reliable company.