Over the past two weeks, nearly a hundred people were hospitalized with serious breathing difficulties after vaping nicotine or weed. Doctors have been perplexed about the cause of this sudden spread of vaping-related illnesses, but officials are now linking a number of these cases to black market weed vape cartridges that may contain a deadly lung toxin or other contaminants.
Since June 28th, health departments in Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Indiana, and Minnesota have reported 94 cases of people suffering from serious breathing issues after vaping. All of these patients experienced shortness of breath, coughing, and difficulty breathing after vaping. Some cases have been so serious that patients required artificial ventilation.
Seven of these cases occurred in the town of Hanford, California, and the close proximity of these incidents helped authorities track down a possible cause. Dr. Milton Teske, health officer at the Kings County Department of Public Health, reviewed the case files and discovered that each of these patients used weed vape carts purchased from unlicensed pop-up markets.
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The vendors at these markets sell illegally-produced vape carts, filled with a mix of raw THC oil cut with other agents, which can include propylene glycol, glycerin, MCT oil, or basically anything else that a bedroom chemist wants to add. “Whoever is mixing it up in their garage, they’re adding other flavors, I suspect, or it’s how they’re diluting it,” said Teske to Leafly. “I suspect it’s some type of hydrocarbon.”
The contaminant could also come from the empty vape cart itself. California law requires all legal weed vape products to be thoroughly tested for contaminants, but black market dealers often buy untested empty carts from China to hold their oil concoctions. These untested carts could include pesticides, residual solvents like hexane, lead, other heavy metals, or any number of unknown irritants, toxins, or allergens.
In Wisconsin, where 30 vaping-related illnesses have been reported in the past weeks, investigators have linked some of these cases to a specific brand of black-market vape carts. Some of the patients who suffered extreme heart and lung damage after vaping reported using a popular brand of vape carts known as Dank Vapes.
Dank Vapes is a relatively well-known brand with a social media presence, but the company is operating entirely outside the law. “They act like a cannabis company, but they actually don’t exist. They’re in the packaging industry,” said Mark Hoashi, founder of the cannabis-rating app Doja, to Inverse. “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.”
Inverse discovered that Dank Vapes has registered trademarks for their logo with the US Patent and Trademark office, but were unable to find any evidence that the company is legally authorized to produce cannabis in any state. These products are marketed as premium and safe products, but as they are not produced legally, there's no oversight to ensure the products are free from toxins and contaminants.
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California cannabis testing facility BelCostaLabs reports that fake weed vape carts often contain unsafe levels of myclobutanil, a fungicide. When heated, this chemical releases toxic fumes, including hydrogen cyanide, which can cause serious lung damage and even death.
“That’s one of the most commonly discussed pesticides,” said BelCosta Labs CEO Myron Ronay to Inverse. “That’s definitely one that we see frequently in the underground market.”
It is currently unknown whether every one of these recent cases can be traced back to black market weed vapes, but regulators in adult-use states are warning cannabis users to stick to legal products.
“If you’re going to vape THC, get it from a licensed dispensary where you know there’s a certain amount of testing required,” Dr. Teske said to Leafly. “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... with a life-threatening respiratory condition.”