Tests Show Bootleg Vapes Are Riddled with Toxins
With the increase in vape-related illnesses and deaths, scientists have been on a hunt to figure out what is causing people to fall ill. Tests are showing that a number of troublesome substances are in bootlegged vapes.
Over the last couple of months, dozens of people have been hospitalized on account of lung pain, trouble breathing, and other symptoms. All of these people report using vaping products, and they often fall into severely dangerous states of health—and quickly.
One NBC news article tells Fabian Castillo’s story that is all remarkably similar to the stories of many others. Castillo started vaping after his uncle handed him a marijuana vape pen to help with his severe anxiety. Since December of last year, Fabian vaped the bootlegged pen laced with THC, and it seemed to diminish his anxiety.
In August of this year, however, Castillo began to have trouble breathing. After a trip to the ER, an X-ray showed extreme damage to his lungs. Soon after, Castillo’s health rapidly declined, and he could barely function.
“I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t talk. I literally couldn’t even move my hands,” said 19-year-old Castillo.
He spent nine days in a medically induced coma. Eight weeks later, he still struggles to breathe deeply.
Castillo admits he had no idea what he was using when he first started using the vape product. Now, he believes it was a bootleg vape pen filled with a toxic mix of chemicals. And he is not the only one—the popularity of vaping products is soaring around the country, and many of them are bootlegged and made without regulation.
Over a dozen people have died from mysterious lung illnesses linked to vape pens, and hundreds more have been admitted to hospitals in 46 states. Scientists and researchers are still trying to find common correlations among products that would suggest a reason for this “new epidemic.”
The medical community is still largely perplexed on what is causing this outbreak in lung illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, Federal Drug Association (FDA), and other groups are busy testing products. But the growing presence of the vape black market—worth about one billion dollars—has made finding answers incredibly difficult. Now, hundreds of Americans are using an assortment of THC vape pens without knowing what’s actually in them.
Here’s what researchers have found, however. The CDC says the majority of patients have reported using vapes containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Other state officials think another common solvent, Vitamin E acetate (used to “cut” cannabis in vape pens), might be responsible for the health crisis.
NBC News commissioned one of the nation’s leading cannabis testing facilities (CannaSafe) to test sampling of the THC cartridges—18 total—obtained from legal dispensaries and unlicensed dealers. The findings have caused major concerns.
Of the three purchased from legal dispensaries in California, the testing company found no heavy metals, pesticides, or residual solvents like Vitamin E.
But of the 13 out of 15 samples taken from black market THC cartridges, they found Vitamin E. The presence of Vitamin E has been known to cause significant lung damage when inhaled. “It should not be inhaled into your lungs,” said pulmonologist Dr. Melodi Pirzada at the NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, New York.
The company tested 10 of the unregulated cartridges for pesticides. All 10 tested positive.
The products all contained myclobutanil, a fungicide that can transform into hydrogen cyanide when burned. The vice president of operations at CannaSafe, Antonio Frazier, notes the hazard of this: “You certainly don’t want to be smoking cyanide. I don’t think anyone would buy a cart that was labeled hydrogen cyanide on it.” Other officials have noted that myclobutanil is very dangerous and can cause severe lung damage.
Fabian Castillo’s situation was extremely life-threatening—and it mirrored the cases of many others. The teenager arrived in the hospital with pneumonia-like symptoms. But within 48 hours, his condition deteriorated and he was placed on a ventilator. He spent five days on life support before he could recover with the help of steroids.
The black market of vape products originates overseas but has a huge presence on American soil. In California, recreational marijuana is legal for adults over the age of 21. In Los Angeles, people can buy empty cartridges and packaging at vape shops, making it easy for anyone with access to THC and solvents like Vitamin E to produce their own bootlegged products.
“This all starts in China where you can get the empty cartridges both for the THC market and the nicotine market, as well as the additives, flavorings, and thickeners that are being put into these cartridges alongside the THC oil,” said David Downs, the California bureau chief for Leafly, an online publication devoted to the cannabis industry.
The American Vaping Association insists that the outbreak is linked to THC oils and knock-off products. Downs says anyone who buys bootleg vapes is putting themselves at risk.
Castillo is still recovering. He feels very winded every time he tried to take a deep breath. He is also dealing with an odd sensation that leaves him feeling like he’s falling down a flight of stairs and results in a body twitch. He is speaking out to deter others from risking their lives by using vapes.