CannaSafe Report Reveals Toxins in Illicit THC Vape Cartridges

VAN NUYS, Calif. – California cannabis testing lab CannaSafe has released results of tests conducted on illicit and counterfeit THC-infused vape cartridges, as well as samples from legal companies.

“California has the strictest cannabis product testing regulations in the nation, and the licensed products proved to be free of contaminants and dangerous pesticides,” the CannaSafe report read.


On the other hand, in its initial findings, CannaSafe pointed out “alarmingly high levels of pesticides and cuttings agents, particularly Vitamin E acetate, found in cartridges purchased on the illicit market.”

The report titled, “Vapes: What are You Actually Inhaling?” details test results CannaSafe released on October 5, after the mysterious vaping-related condition—now called EVALI—first started being reported by health officials in late August. 

In total, the lab tested seven THC vape cartridges from legal stores, manufactured by legal producers, as well as seven illicit and counterfeit cartridges, purchased from illicit vendors or delivery services in the Los Angeles area.

While the legally purchased cartridges were identified only by letter (Cartridge A, B, etc.), illicit cartridges were “brands” including Cereal Carts, Exotic Cart, and Dank Vapes. Two more cartridges were counterfeit versions of legal manufacturers Kingpen and Stiiizy brands.

The lab tested four areas of concern for health officials and vape users, which included cutting agents, temperature, flavorings, and heavy metals/hardware.

Early in the vaping crisis, multiple sources speculated Vitamin E acetate, a common thickening agent in topical and ingestible formulas, might play a role in lung injury suffered from vaping.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that Vitamin E acetate was found in all lung fluid samples of twenty-nine patients with EVALI, as part of an ongoing, multi-agency investigation into the vaping illness. Some experts speculated that harmful toxins might be produced when Vitamin E acetate (or other vape liquid ingredients) are super-heated during the vaping process.

Vitamin E acetate is used as a “cutting agent” in vape cartridges to achieve the correct volume of oil contained in each cart. The additive was found in all of the illicit cartridges tested; the counterfeit Kingpen had the least amount at just over thirty percent, while the Cereal Carts “Trix” flavored cartridge contained almost thirty seven percent of Vitamin E acetate.

CannaSafe went on to say that while regulation of cutting agents would be helpful in preventing harm to vape users, consumer protection would also benefit from enforcement of clear labeling requirements.

Vaping temperature is significant, the lab said, because high temperatures may alter even commonly used compounds (like Vitamin E acetate) and super-heating those compounds may produce toxic chemical reactions.

“A study of four different cutting agents (propylene glycol [PG], vegetable glycerin [VG], polyethylene glycol 400 [PEG 400], and medium chain triglycerides [MCT]) found that all four produced measurable amounts of acetaldehyde, acrolein, and formaldehyde when heated to 230°C (446°F),” the report read.

In regards to vape industry guidelines for temperature, CannaSafe said that suggested heat settings are not apparent to consumers.

“Only one legal cartridge provided recommended settings of any kind, listing a ‘recommended voltage’ of 3.5V on the packaging. Based on our review of various sources, this seems to match general industry-wide recommendations of ~3V.”

The report also said consumers may be further confused about temperature because there is no one standard unit of temperature measurement currently being used by vape product manufacturers. Instead of degrees in Celsius of Fahrenheit, heating increments might be described by voltage, watts, or OHMs, which provides little guidance for consumers in determining a safe or optimal heat setting.

“There needs to be more transparency into the hardware’s vaporizing temperature. For this study, we compared voltage settings of 3.5V vs. 5.8V. We found that even the oil in legal cartridges broke down into unfavorable chemicals when vaporized at higher voltage settings,” said CannaSafe.   

After testing illicit vape cartridge contents at a high temperatures, results showed, “formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen cyanide were found in the illicit Kingpen (>50ppm), Exotic Cart Maui Wowie (>50ppm), and illicit Stiiizy (5ppm) cartridges.”

Flavorings in THC-infused products are generally derived from terpenes that are extracted from cannabis or other plants. Synthetic terpenes can also be created in the lab, and are commonly added to processed foods and other flavored products.

Again, the report showed that while terpenes are a common additive, the process of super-heating that occurs during vaping might alter terpene compounds, resulting in a toxic by-product or chemical reaction.

Tests also showed great disparity in the amount of terpenes contained in each of the cartridges, especially when compared with the level of cannabinoids (cannabis plant compounds, including psychoactive THC) in each cartridge.

Those purchased on the legal market all contained at least eighty five percent cannabinoids, and less than ten percent terpenes.

Of the illicit cartridges; levels of cannabinoids varied greatly, from a low of just over thirty percent, to a high of little more than seventy two percent, in the counterfeit Stiiizy cartridge. Levels of terpenes also varied, from less than one percent in the Stiiizy cartridge, to nearly eight percent in the Cereal Carts Trix blend.

Tests also revealed that vanilla flavor was the most commonly used in the vape cartridges they examined.

Lastly, hardware and heavy metals were examined by CannaSafe’s researchers, who brought to light another unregulated area of concern—the actual vaping hardware. Vape rigs, e-cigarettes, and the materials used to make them, apparently, also are largely unregulated.

This led CannaSafe’s testers to suggest that more research is needed to see if contact with various hardware components might effect e-liquids, either from cartridge materials or when used with a device.

“Our study found that the illicit CBD cart bought online contained over 17x the acceptable amount of lead (limit is 0.5 ug/g), the cart measured 8.640 ug/g of lead, which may be due to leaching introduced from the hardware,” the report read.

“Since batteries with their own potentially hazardous materials are incorporated into every vape pen and similar device, the connections between batteries and cartridges must also be considered on a case-by-case basis to identify possible sources of contamination in the final product, both as oil and vapor,” it added.

In summing up the findings, CannaSafe emphasized that the illicit vape products it tested contained a potentially harmful array of pesticides, adulterants, toxic chemicals, and heavy metals that may be catalyzed by vaping at high temperatures. 

Noting that all the legal cartridges that were tested were compliant with California state industry regulations and produced safer vaping products. Non-regulation in states where cannabis is still illegal, the report suggested, has led to an illicit market for products, since consumers have no legal access.

“It is quite likely that the illicit products in states with no medical or recreational programs are filled with more adulterants due to a lack of regulations or education for consumers and manufacturers,” CannaSafe said in conclusion, adding, “We encourage all consumers to buy legal products from licensed dispensaries.”

CannaSafe’s report was also featured on media platform NBC News this week.