Should I Throw Out My Weed Vape Pen?
Many people hospitalized from vape-related illnesses reported using THC oil. Here’s what experts know, and how you should proceed.
As of September 17, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported at least six deaths and 530 hospitalizations from the use of vape products like e-cigarettes and vape pens. The illnesses have spanned 36 states and one U.S. territory, but the deaths have come from states on the West Coast and in the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, California, and Oregon.
“Patients have been coming in with various lung issues caused by irritation in the lungs related to [vapes],” says Dr. MuChun Tsai, a pulmonary care physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. While there have been no vaping-related deaths in Ohio, Tsai says community hospitals are seeing a significant uptick in vaping-related hospitalizations. The most common symptoms reported are shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The cause of the illnesses and deaths is still under investigation and a single vape or e-cigarette product has not been identified as responsible. But according to the CDC, the commonality among all the sick people is a history of vape product use, and the majority of people hospitalized have used THC oil — the active ingredient in marijuana — in their vape pens. Tsai reports that the sick people she’s seen in Ohio have commonly used THC or a combination of THC and nicotine in their vapes. Because doctors have found “no consistent evidence of an infectious disease,” the suspected cause of the lung irritation is a chemical exposure.
What’s behind the recent hospitalizations?
Vape products first hit the American market over a decade ago. They use cartridges that are filled with oil and other additives; these oils are aerosolized and become vapor that the user inhales. Some vape products, such as e-cigarettes, contain nicotine so that users can satisfy cravings without some of the toxic chemicals that come from combustible tobacco. Others use cartridges with THC oil.
It’s clear that e-cigarettes produce fewer amounts of toxic chemicals than traditional cigarettes. But they’re far from healthy, experts say: The chemicals found in vape liquids contain toxins like formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and diacetyl (the same chemical that’s used to create the buttery flavor on your microwave popcorn). These chemicals can irritate the delicate lining of the lungs, causing inflammation and a host of other serious symptoms as the inflammation gets worse.
The ingredients in THC products are often lesser known and that is concerning, says Tsai. Because THC products are illegal in many states (including her state of Ohio), consumers could be purchasing unregulated oils or cartridges from the street or even making the oil themselves. Unregulated or “bootleg” cartridges could contain high levels of toxic additives, the CDC warns, which puts people at risk of lung injury.
Experts are also concerned about a compound called vitamin E acetate that’s used as a thickening agent in vape products. Health officials in New York said earlier this month that they are investigating the compound since “very high levels” were identified in several samples of cannabis-based vape liquids used by people who fell ill in New York.
So does your pen need to go?
“Due to how many people have been hospitalized and how many more could potentially die, it’s probably safer to avoid vaping, especially with THC oils,” says Tsai. “If you’re going to buy THC, buy it from a reputable provider versus on the street or from your friend, and don’t try to make it yourself.”
If people own illegal vape cartridges or purchased their vape products from an illegal vendor, it is recommended to throw them out.
For people who use vape products to quit smoking or for pain management, Tsai recommends speaking with a primary care doctor about any risks before proceeding, or looking for safer alternatives.