Health Officials Still Puzzled as Reports of Vaping-Related Illnesses Mount
On September 6th, we published a story about the recent string of vaping illnesses being reported across the U.S.
Originally, health officials suspected vitamin E acetate – an oily vitamin E extract found exclusively in THC vape liquids and cartridges. However, while the majority of cases involved exposure to this ingredient, not every individual who contracted the mystery illness was exposed to this.
While experts scramble to find answers (and a treatment), the stories launched a flurry of finger-pointing, as laypeople share and comment on articles they never read and industry insiders defend themselves.
Marijuana Business Daily describes the current situation and the potential consequences – good and bad. However, sometimes we need to look outside the immediate situation to see if we are missing something.
A Look at the Technology
Although the first e-cigarette was invented by a Chinese pharmacist in 2004, the technology has evolved significantly.
One thing we need to clear up is that e-cigarettes do not produce vapour. There is no water in the formula. Instead, the liquids contain a mixture of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, nicotine (optional) and flavourings.
The vape itself consists of a battery, tank and atomizer. Sizes and designs vary, but the mechanism is universal. The atomizer requires a metal or ceramic coil fitted with a wick made of materials such as synthetic fibre or organic cotton.
The battery sends a regulated amount of electricity to a metal coil, which then becomes hot enough to vaporize the liquid soaked inside the coil’s wick.
There are more advanced versions, such as RDAs, but these are irrelevant to the topic in question.
Anti-vaping groups have tried incessantly to find evidence proving that vaping is dangerous. But so far, they have not found anything concrete. Dismantling their arguments would require a lot of time, so instead, let us briefly examine notable research.
Unfortunately, the illnesses seen today were not present during early studies, so these were not examined. However, e-cigarette toxicity did receive attention.
One study in the U.K. discovered that e-cigarettes are only 1% as carcinogenic as regular cigarettes, according to Vapes.
Additionally, Dr. Michael Siegel of Boston University stated that there is no risk from “second-hand” vapour.
Going back to the first reference above, Vapes cites something that is relevant to vaping and, more importantly, to the issue of toxicity and illness:
“The results are dependent on three factors:
- The e-liquid mixture being vaped
- The vaping habits of the user
- And perhaps most importantly, the heating temperatures being applied to the coil.”
To address the first point, e-liquids vary in terms of quality and ingredients. The U.S. industry does an excellent job of self-regulating to gain consumer trust and remain competitive. However, this does not stop cheap, sub-par e-liquids from entering the marketplace. Users need to keep this in mind and opt to buy liquids from companies who provide third-party lab testing for any hazardous ingredients.
Second, toxic exposure will vary depending on how often users vape and how much they consume. Small vape pens generate very little vapour, thus exposing individuals to less. Larger, “sub-ohm” devices are designed for large cloud production, so a lot more e-liquid is inhaled with each puff.
Furthermore, some individuals tend to “chain-vape,” which is self-explanatory. Naturally, they will overexpose themselves to any potentially harmful chemicals in their liquids.
Regarding the final point, larger vape devices or “box mods” allow users to control the voltage and temperature of their devices. When vaped at too high heat, this can release some toxic chemicals. However, the heat levels required are so high that most vapes cannot even reach them. In rare cases when they can hit that kind of temperature, it is typically to uncomfortable to use.
No Cases in Canada Yet
Although experts are yet to discover a concrete reason for these issues, we have to wonder why Canada has not seen any. There could be a multitude of reasons, the most glaring one being that THC vape products are not yet legal. But there could be more to it.
In 2018, the Canadian government passed Bill S-5, also known as the Vaping and Tobacco Products Act, added new – seemingly arbitrary – restrictions to the nicotine e-liquids found in conventional vape devices.
This put limits on various chemicals and flavours allowed in e-liquids. According to Vapes:
“According to Canada Bill S-5, e-liquid vendors can no longer include caffeine, vitamins, minerals, probiotics, coloring agents, and other specifically-defined substances in their e-juice recipes.”
This covers a lot of ingredients that U.S. manufacturers are not restricted from using. Also included in the ban are certain “confectionery, dessert and cannabis flavours,” among others.
Here is where we need to look more closely. Like any artificially-flavoured food, the types of ingredients used to achieve the taste vary.
Is it possible that one of the ingredients banned in Canada happens to be present in the U.S. e-liquids? Unfortunately, research has not focused heavily – if at all – on the flavourings themselves.
So far, the prime suspect is vitamin E acetate. According to health officials, the substance’s oily composition and molecular structure is harmful for the lungs. Still, this does not explain why some – albeit a minority – of these individuals fell ill despite no exposure to acetate.
But we forget another oily ingredient common to all e-cigarettes: vegetable glycerin.
As we mentioned earlier, e-liquid bases consist of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin.
These act as carriers, responsible for containing the nicotine and flavourings until vaporized for delivery into the mouth and lungs.
Both substances are recognized as generally safe for consumption and can be found in a variety of products, such as inhalers, food and cosmetics, to name a few.
Propylene glycol (PG) is man-made and derived from petroleum. But VG is a derivative of vegetable oil, sharing something in common with vitamin E acetate.
If damage to the lungs from an oily substance is to blame, could high-VG e-liquids be a contributing factor?
The interesting thing about VG is that simpler devices cannot use it – although their liquids do still contain some VG.
At higher VG ratios (70 to 80% or above) the e-juice is too thick for smaller coils to absorb in their wicks. They need large, powerful sub-ohm devices. Consequently, the people who consume high-VG juices tend to do so in massive amounts.
WeedAdvisor’s Interest in Accuracy and Reliability
Prior to writing this piece, we referred to a lot of different media articles. One thing we noticed was that the stories varied. In some cases, the details were minor. However, some either deliberately or accidentally left out key information, effectively misleading the public.
This is frankly unacceptable. As a writer who spent several years covering the topic of e-cigarettes, this author felt compelled to step outside the hysteria and offer a third perspective.
However, we are not medical professionals, so the questions being discussed are purely theoretical based on personal knowledge and experience.
Anyone who vapes should meticulously check the ingredients of their e-liquid, choose products wisely and moderate their vaping practices.
Avoid using unregulated home-made devices, as these are highly dangerous and often powerful enough to release more toxins than the average store-bought device.
All vapers should immediately consult a doctor if they notice any strange symptoms.