Vapes: What Are You Actually Inhaling?

February 3, 2020
Abstract / Synopsis: 

Based on our experience testing compliance samples, engaging with local and state officials on regulations, and working directly with manufacturers and clients, we have identified four major factors related to the production of vape cartridges that warrant additional attention: cutting agents, temperature, flavoring, and hardware and heavy metals.

On October 5, 2019, CannaSafe released our initial findings into the sudden appearance of multiple e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) (1) cases across the country. That report highlighted and focused on the alarmingly high levels of pesticides and cutting agents, particularly vitamin E acetate, found in cartridges purchased on the illicit market. California has the strictest cannabis product testing regulations in the nation, and the licensed products proved to be free of contaminants and dangerous pesticides. There are many factors that go into the efficacy of a vape cartridge, which prompted us to continue this study on potential factors at play beyond the scope of current cannabis testing and regulation. Similar to ongoing investigations undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2), CannaSafe has tested the vaporized contents of vape cartridges and monitored the performance of the accompanying hardware in an effort to shed light on some of the unknowns related to what actually enters a consumer’s lungs. This testing was examined alongside the regulatory testing required under California Proposition 64 (3) (commonly called Prop 64, approved at the ballot in 2016, and in effect since January 1, 2018), which tests the final packaged units of product as sold or purchased in licensed cannabis dispensaries. The goal of this study is to bring information to the table about the state of vape products as they are inhaled.

Our doing business as (DBA) name is CannaSafe, but the original name of our company was Consumer Safety Analytics. Our overall mission has always been to provide data and information so that consumers can make informed and health-conscious decisions. We have examined samples from both the legal and illicit cannabis markets to provide insight into what measures could be taken to ensure the safest products are available to consumers.

This study was conducted using CannaSafe’s own resources. All of the legal cartridges were purchased at licensed dispensaries. All illicit cartridges were purchased from unlicensed delivery services or retailers in Los Angeles, California. Due to the limited data set, no broad conclusions should be inferred from the results presented. Rather, the results should highlight the need for additional testing of vape cartridge hardware and oil, especially at high temperatures.


Based on our experience testing compliance samples, engaging with local and state officials on regulations, and working directly with manufacturers and clients, we have identified four major factors related to the production of vape cartridges that warrant additional attention:

  • Cutting agents
  • Temperature
  • Flavoring
  • Hardware and heavy metals

Each of these factors play an important role in how products are consumed. Let's take a closer look at each one.

Cutting Agents

For the purpose of this study, cutting agents refer to chemicals added to vape cartridges that dilute the cannabis oil inside. The primary reason cutting agents are used is to increase the final volume available for sale by the producer of the vape cartridge. For the consumer, this results in a given purchased amount (whether measured by weight or volume) containing less cannabis oil than expected.

With advanced e-cigarette technology being applied to cannabis, it has become essentially impossible for the average consumer to tell whether the oil in their cartridge has been “cut” with off-label chemicals. Cutting agents on the whole are meant to stay under the consumer’s radar and don’t materially change the appearance, flavor, or effect of the product when added. Laboratory testing is needed to properly categorize the content of vape cartridges.

Cutting agents are currently unregulated in California. Colorado  implemented a ban on polyethylene glycol (PEG), vitamin E acetate, and medium-chain triglycerides (MCT oil) as additives to vape cartridges that went into effect at the start of 2020 (4). While banning the aforementioned additives will certainly help address the current issue, enforcing labeling requirements would also promote transparency and protect consumers against the next unsafe cutting agent discovered.

Our study presented the following on illicit cartridges: Illicit cartridge A contained 30.88% vitamin E acetate. Illicit cartridge B and illicit cartridge C contained 36.74% and 31.13% vitamin E acetate, respectively. Illicit cartridge D had 34.02% vitamin E acetate. Illicit cartridge E had 34.69% vitamin E acetate (see Figure 1).















  1. CDC "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)"; posted online October 11, 2019
  2. CDC "Outbreak of Lung Injury Associated with the Use of E-Cigarette, or Vaping, Products"; posted online October 29, 2019, updated October 31, 2019
  3. Bureau of Cannabis Control Text of Regulations,
  5. W.D. Troutt and M.D. DiDonato, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 23(11), online (2017),
  12. “Temperature Control Mods”
  16. “What Parents Need to Know about Vaping and JUULing,”
  17. “Adding Flavors to E-Cigarette Liquids Changes Chemistry, Creates Irritants”
  18. H. Park, M. O’Sullivan, J. Vallarino, et al. Sci. Rep. 9, 1400 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-018-37913-9
  19. RoHS 3 (EU 2015/863)

About the Authors

Maha Haq is the Education Administrator at CannaSafe Analytics in Van Nuys, California.

Ini Afia is the Scientific and Technical Director of CannaSafe. 

Neya Jourabchian is the Analytical Lab Manager of CannaSafe Analytics overseeing the chemistry and microbial departments.

Direct correspondence to: [email protected]

How to Cite This Article

M. Haq, I. Afia, and N. Jourabchian, Cannabis Science and Technology 3(1), 44-51 (2020).