By Niki Altieri, Phil Cross & Scott Carter
Editor’s note: This article was written by ENN student journalist Niki Altieri and ENN Co-Directors Phil Cross and Scott Carter. On-site interviews at medical marijuana testing facilities did not include student participation. This article is based on the most current research and numbers at the time of publication. ENN will continue to follow this topic and provide new stories as updated information becomes available.
OKLAHOMA CITY – An Oklahoma company is seeking to patent a process that could solve the vaping crisis that has hospitalized hundreds of people across the country. The solution lies in identifying what is in the liquid being inhaled through a THC vaping device.
“We kind of knew it was going to be the Vitamin E and Vitamin E acetate in the product,” William Webb, owner of Q Cann Labs, said. Webb’s company was already in the medical testing business prior to marijuana’s medical legalization. He expanded his business to begin testing marijuana after the passage of State Question 788. The company has filed for a patent for its testing product this week.
The Centers for Disease Control recently announced Vitamin E Acetate was found in testing results from 29 patients in 10 states.
“This is the first time that we have detected a potential chemical of concern in biologic samples from patients with these lung injuries,” the CDC announced online. “These findings provide direct evidence of vitamin E acetate at the primary site of injury within the lungs.”
Vitamin E Acetate is sometimes added to concentrated tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC oils. It can be added to thin out the liquid to make it easier to consume by a vaping device or for the purpose of extending the supply of the chemicals that produce the euphoric high associated with marijuana use.
Webb and Q Cann Labs had already been working on a method to test for the amount of Vitamin E Acetate from distilled marijuana samples, when he discovered the marijuana plant naturally contains Vitamin E. That discovery, he said, made the process of creating an accurate calibration curve difficult.
“We are trying to go with the most organic process possible and that means only removing the harmful contaminants and leaving all the natural health elements in the plant,” he said.
Webb said natural amounts of Vitamin E in the marijuana flower are not harmful. When marijuana is concentrated into an oil, it concentrates everything in the plant. That includes concentrating contaminants that may be harmful to people using THC vaping products
The New York State Department of Health was the first to link Vitamin E Acetate to the vaping illnesses. That research showed excessive amounts of vitamin E acetate in cannabis-containing vape cartridges used by people experiencing symptoms of the illness. According to a news release from the agency, Vitamin E acetate may act like an “oil-like substance” that sticks to the lungs causing pneumonia-like symptoms when inhaled through a vaping device.
In Oklahoma, the State Department of Health reported four probable or confirmed cases of this vaping illness. Tony Sellars, the agency’s spokesman, told EPIC News Network, “the exposures reported by Oklahoma cases are similar to national observations, where the majority of cases reported using e-cigarette products with THC, but have also reported using products containing nicotine.”
Patients diagnosed with the vaping illness have reported using unregulated, or “black market” vaping cartridges. State health department officials said they “strongly advise against buying these products off the street and modifying or adding substances to them that are not recommended by the manufacturer.”
The testing of cannabis-containing products was part of newly enacted medical marijuana legislation, passed by the Oklahoma Legislature.
Webb said his lab will soon roll out a full testing service that will screen distilled marijuana products for even more chemical contaminants than the state requires. The lab will then remove all Vitamin E from the distilled product.
“We want to make sure we are not adding anything to the product we are only removing and keeping it in the most natural state possible,” Webb said. “The only way to keep it safe is not to add anything to it.”
To that end, Webb said his lab is also working to develop a disposable vaping device. He does not want to provide cleaned THC oils back to processors because there is a risk the product could be “cut” or diluted with another chemical.
Webb hopes to have a full-scale process in place by February 2020.
In the meantime, he recommends marijuana patients follow the CDC guidelines, which include not consuming illicit THC vaping products. He said patients and consumers of marijuana should make sure the products they purchase are tested.
Some patients report vaping within a week of symptom onset. State health officials began an investigation of these illnesses in early September. Symptoms of the vaping illness include a prolonged cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, fever, or abdominal pain.
Persons who have any of these symptoms, the OSDH says to contact a healthcare professional immediately.
The Oklahoma State Health Department said vaping products should not be used to quit smoking or for those who are not currently using tobacco products. The FDA only recommends evidence-based treatments, counseling, and FDA approved medications as smoking cessation methods.