Health Impact: Cannabis Oil Vape Pens
“Hash Pens are the fedora of the cannabis world”, says cannabis social-media celebrity Bike Hawley. In so many colors, shapes, and sizes the mind can imagine, vapers either have pre-loaded cartridges full of cannabis extract mixed with a semi-viscous flavor solvent or a little pouch of concentrates nearby to dab up their atomizer, seal the cap on, and press an illuminous button that delivers a “smokeless” vapor into the lungs that quickly dissipates into the air. Vaporizing is attractive for discrete use and is marketed as a healthier option than inhaling smoke for its intended effect. However, the health effects of vaporizing remain a mystery and evidence is actually mounting against the marketing and is rather exposing unintended health risks of vaporizing.
The health effects of nicotine E-Cigarettes are becoming more known through university sanctioned studies and some of the same ingredients are used in both nicotine e-cigarettes and cannabis concentrate (hash) pens. Often times the cartridges, batteries and other attachments for these devices are interchangeable with either nicotine or cannabis pens. The latter are marketed as herbal concentrate vaporizers in order to ship nationwide in states where cannabis remains illegal.
One such study is titled “Carbonyl Compounds in Electronic Cigarette Vapors – Effects of Nicotine Solvent and Battery Output Voltage”. Published in 2014 and compiled from research with no observable bias from health institutions around the world, the investigation identifies the health hazards of nicotine “e-juice” and the variability of such health effects based on the power output of pen/vaporizer batteries. The solvents investigated in the study were glycerin and propylene glycol. Almost all nicotine e-juice and cannabis concentrate-infused liquids use either one or a combination of these two solvents. CO2-extracted cannabis concentrate, for which companies use for vapor cartridges, is often times not viable for use alone because the extract is extremely viscous and must be mixed with a solvent to dilute the solution to use with a handheld electronic device such as a hash pen.
The study identifies that production of carbonyl compounds – namely formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acetone— increases as the battery voltage output increases. The researchers note that some battery output voltages create these compounds in equal or greater amounts than produced by burning traditional tobacco cigarettes. Formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are known carcinogens and acetone, prevalent in nail polish remover, is an irritant and may suppress the central nervous system in high doses. The following chart shows how volatile the production of these compounds is with just the slightest increase in battery output voltage for vaporizing both vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol.
After identifying first that vaporizing both vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol produce the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, and then observing the correlation between higher battery output voltage and the production of such carcinogens, the question remains, what hash pens operate at these powers and what should be avoided on the market?
The answer is difficult to identify. Many companies do not release their hash pen manufacturing specifics and hold that information to be a proprietary secret as to not be reproduced by a knockoff competitor. Though these companies’ patented information should be protected, any information about the health effects of using their products should be provided to the public for safety reasons.
Many vaporizer enthusiasts have taken to building their own coils, the term given to the system that draws battery amperage through a steel or aluminum wire wrapped around the positive (+) and negative (-) posts from the battery with specific resistance. The result is an increased surge of power that creates a cloud of vapors more voluminous than the original build would have created. This process is called “modding” because the users mechanically modify the original build so they can achieve greater volumes of vapor and intensify the effect.
This modification though can increase the production of carbonyl compounds as demonstrated in the chart. Some of these “mods” can be as high as 7 volts, nearly double the readings investigated by the health institutes in the given study. These extreme electrical pressures (imagine turning up voltage like turning up the faucet on a garden hose of water) create very high temperatures in just a couple of seconds and vaporize the glycol or glycerin instantly. Also modified are the length and gauge of the heating wire to create less resistance, intensifying the amperage from the battery even greater. Because they are arranged in such a way with no regulatory oversight and with little regard to human health, these devices are considered dangerous and sometimes illegal, depending on the build.
The fact is that most hash pens and electronic cigarettes operate with battery output voltages above 3.0 volts, the lowest range in the chart supplied by the health institutions that conducted the study on carbonyl compounds. The leading brand in hash pens does not publically disclose their mechanism’s specifics though independent research has identified that the brand remarkets an existing pen with a different name. The base manufacturer discloses that their device runs from 3.3 to 4.2 volts. Even at the lowest possible voltage for the device, the vaporization of propylene glycol, for which the leading brand of hash pens and cartridges discloses as their solvent, creates toxic levels of carbonyl compounds that are dangerous to human health. Since the cartridges are interchangeable with higher powered batteries that people could modify, the potential for health risks associated with vaporizing propylene glycol are intensified.
As knowledge about the effects of vaporizing propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin increase—many believe that vaporizing vegetable glycerin is safer, though this assumption is based on ingestion only and not inhalation —people are reaching out to other solvents to minimize health effects and still deliver the intended effect. One solvent people are experimenting with for cannabis concentrates is MCT oil, short for medium chain triglycerides, which is refined from coconut oil. Though no official studies have been conducted on the health effects of vaporizing MCT oil as a solvent, it is understood in the food industry that MCT oil is not intended for cooking because it has an extremely low smoking point. Before thinking you can use an oil with a high smoking point, like peanut oil, understand also that it requires an even greater temperature to vaporize and that it breaks down to carcinogens as well when heated above its smoking point, which is required for the intended effect of vaporization.
It is recommended then to purchase a pen or electronic device that utilizes a self-loading atomizer rather than one that is intended for pre-loaded cartridges. Further, developing your own e-juice with cannabis extract is not recommended as a completely safe solvent has not yet been identified by the health and science communities. There are, however, several options for hash pens that are self-load capable. These pens use only pure herbal extract with no glycerin or glycol necessary. The jury is still out on the complete health effects of vaporizing cannabis concentrate extracted by butane, propane, CO2 and the like, but the established medical field clearly condemns the use of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin for the use of vaporization as they are not less harmful than tobacco cigarettes but instead the resulting formaldehyde and acetaldehyde produced may be even more detrimental to human health than traditional cigarettes. These solvents should be completely avoided, especially for those who consume just cannabis, with which the medical community has not identified a direct association to cancer or emphysema. Although convenient and discrete there is a bottom line; the use of solvent-based hash pens can be costly for your health.
Kosmider, L., Sobczak, A., Fik, M., Knysak, J., Zaciera, M., Kurek, J., & Lukasz Goniewicz, M. (2014, May 15). Carbonyl Compounds in Electronic Cigarette Vapors - Effects of Nicotine Solvent and Battery Output Voltage. Retrieved April 7, 2015, from http://ntr.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/05/14/ntr.ntu078.full
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Shift Cannabis Co. is a boutique consulting firm focusing on boutique cannabis cultivation and retailing.