MANHATTAN (CN) – As vaping-related deaths in the U.S. ticked to three this week, with a fourth still under investigation, New York officials say they have zeroed in on an unapproved additive present in nearly every sample studied.
The New York state Department of Health made the announcement Thursday amid 450 reports to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the past several months of people being hospitalized across the country with the symptoms of serious lung illness. Sparking fear about trendy vaping pens and stumping physicians, the cases have been reported in 33 states and one U.S. territory.
In New York, where there have been 34 reports involving patients between the ages of 15 and 46, investigators have discovered high levels of a chemical called Vitamin E acetate in nearly all cannabis-containing vape samples it tested. The CDC said Friday, however, that it could not point to a single cause, product or substance causing the problem.
Vaping, a form of smoking cannabis and nicotine through a pen full of liquid that is heated and breathed as steam, is still a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S., within the last couple of decades. There’s a lot we don’t know. But cannabis industry representatives have been quick to downplay the issue as one exclusive to the black market.
“The problem isn’t in vape products per se, it’s in shitty products,” Derek Cumings, co-founder of a brand of edible cannabis called Incredibles, said in a joint interview from Colorado with Medically Correct CEO and founding partner Rick Scarpello.
“In a highly unregulated market, I would say that the majority of those pens consumed in New York are gonna be black-market pens, and there’s no incentive for people on the black market to do the right thing,” Cumings said.
“That’s what happening with these shitty products. It’s certainly not the cannabis. It’s not really the equipment as much as it is the knowledge, or lack of knowledge of things that will work good and be safe.”
Cumings and Scarpello explained that cannabis oil has the consistency of honey, so it has to be cut with something to facilitate vaping. They guessed black-market dealers were cutting the cannabis oil with cheap liquids, perhaps with actual vitamin E oil, which is safe for use on skin and nails.
Marijuana is legal in New York for medical use only, though the possession of small amounts was recently decriminalized by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Jill Montag, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department, declined to confirm that all the tested samples were unregulated. “All marijuana products that are not part of the NYS Medical Marijuana Program are illegal in New York state,” she said. “The investigation is ongoing.”
Department officials say the chemical has been found only in the cannabis vapes, not in nicotine vapes, but it was found in almost all of those cannabis vape products, including vapes flavored like Sour Patch Kids candy.
The state issued a health advisory last month as it continued to study the mysterious rash of illnesses.
It’s also possible that some people are sickened by oil that gets into their lungs, after the heated liquid product turns to steam and back to oil as it cools. The illnesses show up like serious viral or bacterial pneumonia in lung scans but are not those diseases, one physician told The New York Times.
A few industry members sought to downplay the problem.
“While this is obviously concerning, I think it is important to note that despite the geographically widespread nature of this [issue nationwide],” said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association, the largest cannabis trade group in the U.S.
“There’s been a relatively small number of cases when you look at the total number of people using vaporizer products,” he added.
Fox guessed that all of the offending products in New York were obtained on the black market. “I think that this really just underscores the need for cannabis to be legal and regulated,” he said.
When asked whether he thought vaping-regulated cannabis was safe, Fox pointed to the lack of proven harm as a reason not to worry.
“I’m saying we haven’t seen any sort of epidemiological studies showing that there’s any reason to be concerned,” he said.
Scott Davies, board chair of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance and co-founder of Flower Company, called for consistent regulation of the cannabis industry. The unevenness of laws around marijuana use in the U.S. has led to dangers much like those bathtub gin posed during Prohibition, he said.
“One of the biggest areas for regulated versus unregulated [cannabis] is extracted products, because they have a higher value and are so much less bulky to move around,” he said.
Extracted products include cannabis oil. “So that’s a place where the unregulated market has invested a lot of time and productivity,” Davies added.