(TMU) — The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Monday that it launched an investigation into the fast-growing phenomenon of people getting “severe” lung disease in connection with vaping.
According to the CDC, nearly 100 people have contracted serious and often life-threatening lung illnesses that may be linked to their use of illicit e-cigarettes, which heat oils into inhalable aerosols, allowing users to consume nicotine, THC or CBD in a highly discrete and smoke-free manner.
The news comes as counterfeit vaping cartridges proliferate across the U.S. with generic packaging and false labels that obscure the fact that they contain a number of mysterious adulterants including cough syrup, various hydrocarbons, toxic heavy metals such as lead, and dangerous synthetic cannabinoids —a category that includes the lethal drug K2 or “spice.”
In many cases, black-market cartridges also contain myclobutanil—a fungicide that when heated releases hydrogen cyanide, a chemical found in Zyklon-B, the poison used in Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust.
On Saturday, the CDC confirmed that they were looking into “94 possible cases of severe lung illness associated with vaping reported in 14 states from June 28, 2019, to August 15, 2019 (this includes 30 cases in Wisconsin).” Other states involved in the investigation include California, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota.
The CDC further stated that they would investigate “a cluster of pulmonary illnesses linked to e-cigarette product use, or ‘vaping,’ primarily among adolescents and young adults. Additional states have alerted CDC to possible (not confirmed) cases and investigations into these cases are ongoing. There is no conclusive evidence that an infectious disease is causing the illnesses. While some cases in each of the states are similar and appear to be linked to e-cigarette product use, more information is needed to determine what is causing the illnesses.”
The announcement comes after officials in Kings County, California announced last Wednesday that seven people have been hospitalized with pneumonia-like symptoms in the rural town of Hanford after buying unregulated cannabis vaporizer cartridges tainted with deadly toxins.
Within the past month alone, six people in their 20s and one 60-year-old have been placed in intensive care for severe acute respiratory distress syndrome (SARDS), with two of the patients requiring mechanical ventilation to prevent them from dying, reports Leafly.
Officials in California have long urged consumers to avoid unlicensed cannabis vaping cartridges, colloquially known as “carts,” due to the lack of rigorous testing that legal cannabis products undergo. Officials aren’t yet certain that illegal carts are the culprit in the hospitalizations, but the common nexus in each of the cases is that those who fell ill were using bootleg cartridges.
In each of the cases, patients bought untested THC products that looked remarkably similar to those sold in legal dispensaries. Street dealers typically need only to buy empty vape cartridges from China, through eBay or other intermediaries like Alibaba, before filling them with raw THC oil cut with a variety of different additives ranging from vegetable glycerin to fungicides, and packaging it in generic boxes that falsely advertise the alleged properties and strains contained in the product.
Before long, users who imbibe of the counterfeit carts often report having heart palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches, and other symptoms related to inhaling the mysterious oils.
Dr. Milton Teske, a health officer with the Kings County Department of Public Health and longtime emergency room physician, said:
“If you’re going to vape THC, get it from a licensed dispensary where you know there’s a certain amount of testing required to do. It sounds like it’s going to cost twice as much as the stuff on the street, but you don’t want to end up in with a life-threatening respiratory condition … Anyone that vapes THC they got off the street and has shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and trouble breathing—go to the ER and tell them you’re vaping, and have heard about this acute respiratory distress syndrome developing from that.”
“Almost every patient had a different brand name … And everyone had purchased it on the street.
Whoever is mixing it up in their garage, they’re adding other flavors, I suspect, or it’s how they’re diluting it. I suspect it’s some type of hydrocarbon.”
In another case that has been gaining widespread media coverage, a 26-year old Wisconsin man has been placed in a medically-induced coma after vaping bootleg cannabis oil sold under the popular black-market brand name, Dank Vapes. The patient’s brother has told a number of outlets that he holds the notorious brand responsible for the life-threatening lung and heart damage the young man sustained.
In a newly-published investigative report by Inverse, the so-called cartridge company Dank Vapes—whose products can be found from Toronto to Mexico City—was exposed as being not so much an actual cannabis company, but as a purveyor of packaging for illicit cartridges.
Mark Hoashi, the founder of Doja App, explained:
“They act like a cannabis company but they actually don’t exist. They’re in the packaging industry … These are just people filling cartridges as ‘Dank Vapes.’ It’s not a singular facility. It’s just people in their garages filling them and selling them.”
Most alarmingly, the problem of black-market cartridges likely won’t go away any time soon. After all, people want to get high for a low price—and the prohibitively high costs of top-shelf legal cannabis will always ensure a customer base for shady cart-slangers.
As “hallinsco,” the host of the Stay High, Stay Humble podcast, told Inverse:
“The Dank Vapes brand will continue to get bigger and grow more in illegal states … They are cheaper, and even in legal states where legal meds are taxed very high, some people still prefer the cheaper options on the black market.”
In California, the Bureau of Cannabis Control is hoping that an old-fashioned campaign of public service announcements titled “Get #Weedwise” can educate consumers about the dangers of consuming black market cartridges. Bureau communications chief Alex Traverso said:
“This is the entire reason why we are running our get weed wise campaign. To educate the public about the importance of shopping from licensed retailers only. There are things out of your control when you decide to purchase cannabis from the illegal market. Your health is more important than cost.”
But for those of us who live in a state or country where legally-licensed cannabis isn’t yet a reality, it may be best to just stick to smoking flower in the analog style. As Josh Wurzer, the founder of licensed California cannabis analysis lab SC Labs told Leafly:
“Black market cannabis was a relatively safe product for so long because—outside of illegal pesticide use—it is hard or impractical to adulterate it to the point it’s going to lead to a public health issue. However with these vape cartridges, it doesn’t have to be nefarious, it can just be incompetence. You need to be very careful about the purity of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and any additives you use, but you need to monitor the quality of the materials used to manufacture the cartridges themselves.
You don’t want to trust your lungs with some chemicals someone mixed up in their garage!”
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