No One Knows What Vape Juice Actually Is

Vaping is believed to have caused more than 800 illnesses, regulatory bodies are freaking out, and yet...?
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
Women use e-cigarettes
The Washington Post / Contributor

As the FDA continues to investigate what, exactly, it is in vape juice that’s making people sick (and just what’s in vape juice, at all, in general), NBC News went ahead and commissioned some testing of its own. The outlet had a cannabis testing facility take a look at the contents of 18 different THC cartridges, some purchased from dispensaries and others from “black market” sources. The vast majority of the carts from illicit sources were found to contain pesticides; vitamin E (a suspected culprit of the mystery vaping illnesses); and myclobutanil, which turns to hydrogen cyanide when burned.


"You certainly don’t want to be smoking cyanide," Antonio Frazier, the vice president of operations at the testing facility, CannaSafe, told NBC. "I don’t think anyone would buy a cart that was labeled hydrogen cyanide on it." Yeah, of course not. The word “CYANIDE” printed in big letters across the side of an e-cig cartridge would, I hope, freak most people out. But, most notably, NBC’s independent investigation gives another glaring example of how little is known about the contents of THC and nicotine pods.

On Friday, the CDC gave a brief update on its own investigation into what caused the mystery lung illness (now being called VAPI, or vaping-associated pulmonary illness). After in-depth interviews with 86 people who’ve become ill, the CDC and FDA still haven’t been able to identify which substance in vape pods is making people so sick. “There may be more than one thing of risk within these products,” Anne Schuchat, principal director of the CDC, said in a press call. “At this time, we do not believe that consumers can tell what’s in the products, and there’s not sufficient information on labels to know, anyway.”

The actual public health crisis here seems to be that, after years on the market, many people are ripping their vape rigs on a daily basis without much thought as to what the juice is made of. A consumer might assume anything you can buy at a store has been tested and is safe (or, at the very least, that the contents of it are known); but now’s a nice time to remember that the U.S. tends to regulate many things reactively, not proactively. (The Synthetic Drug Abuse Protection Act, for instance, wasn’t introduced and passed until after someone committed suicide after taking K2, or synthetic weed.)


Just earlier this month, a study from Duke University found high levels of pulegone, a chemical banned in food by the FDA, in menthol and mint-flavored vape pods. Various hypotheses have been thrown at the wall as the illness continues to spread, without any real explanation other than “it comes from vapes.” Illicit products, THC-containing cartridges, and third-party pods have all been thought of as likely sources of blame. The CDC’s initial findings don’t really whittle the field down at all.

Given the volume of alarm sounding from state and federal governments, “yeah, IDK,” feels like an extremely casual response. Schuchat didn’t say all people should throw their carts out right now, but did issue caution against using e-cigs, especially those containing THC. The size of the response and the CDC’s warning feel like they don’t totally match up, which, as the Cut reported Friday morning, could be an indication of a moral panic problem, rather than a public health crisis. “Not to diminish the tragedy, but when you see this panic [as a result of fewer than] a dozen deaths in a country of 300 million people, that has the markings of a moral panic,” Andrew Hathaway, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Guelph in Canada, told the Cut. “I think there is some cause to be cynical about that.”

Patients with the lung illness report using a wide variety of products from a wide variety of brands, and purchased their liquid from both authorized and unauthorized providers, Jennifer Layden chief medical officer and state epidemiologist at the Illinois Department of Public Health, said in Friday’s press call. No singular brand was mentioned by all 86 of the patients interviewed, though a majority of the patients got sick after vaping THC-containing liquid.

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