Industry News Safety & Compliance

Cutting Agents Used in Vape Cartridges: Current Affairs and Safety Standards, or the Lack Thereof

Written by Petar Petrov

As you have probably heard, over the last few months there has been a wave of hospital admissions of patients with lung problems that seemingly came out of the blue. But after the initial cloud of mystery started dispersing, a common denominator among the cases was revealed — vaping and in many cases, vaping tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) report specifically states that “THC is present in most of the samples tested by FDA to date, and most patients report a history of using THC-containing products.”

But vaping THC isn’t something that people just started doing, so the devil must be in the details. And indeed, due to the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) and CDC in-depth investigations, the suspects are being narrowed down.

In short, those culprits include hazardous cutting agents. Cutting agents aren’t bad themselves, and are generally used to lessen the viscosity of THC oils so they can be vaped properly. However, certain cutting agents are a hard no.

Vitamin E Acetate

While no single contaminant or cutting agent was present in every one of the compromised vape cartridges that were tested, vitamin E acetate is a significant common thread.

For example, it was discovered in 13 of the 15 bootleg THC cartridges that were tested by CannaSafe, a pioneer in cannabis lab testing, at the behest of NBC.

Furthermore, vitamin E acetate was found in the products of each of the three companies that have been subpoenaed to collaborate with the FDA in their investigation — Mass Terpenes, Honey Cut, and Floraplex Terpenes. All three companies sell diluting agents.

The problem with vitamin E acetate stems from its use by unprofessional, or in other words illicit, manufacturers. Had such people been professionals, they should have probably known, or cared, that vitamin E acetate presents no harm in skin creams and supplements, but inhaling it can have horrific outcomes, one of them being lipoid pneumonitis. [1] This is a serious condition that’s accompanied by labored breathing, coughing, and chest pain — all symptoms that were reported by victims.

Too Much Cutting Agents

Even if “safe” cutting agents are being used, too much of a good thing applies with full force in this situation. The more cutting agents there are in THC oil, the less true the cannabis oil, which means lower costs and higher profits for manufacturers.

On top of that, such practices can be glossed over fairly easily.

Too much diluent makes the oil runny, which customers have come to decipher as a sign of lower quality. However, that sign is easily obscured by thickeners, one such thickener being vitamin E acetate. While many cartridges are made of clear glass, so a consumer can see the oil color and viscosity for themselves, some disposable pens are more of a black box (or cylinder).

What’s more, there are industry experts who say that the cutting agents aren’t needed in the first place. (Editor’s Note: More on that in a separate article. JSL)

The Real Culprit – The Illicit Market

To take care of the problem, we have to eradicate the root cause, which in this case is the illicit market as most patients from the first wave were from states where adult cannabis use is illegal. Unfortunately, it has spread to every state (besides Alaska), the District of Colombia, and even a U.S. territory (US Virgin Islands).

A legal cannabis market may not be perfect, or standardized, but at least there is some oversight at the state level. Illicit vape cartridges may have pesticides that go undetected because they aren’t first evaluated by a 3rd party lab. And they may have cutting agents to stretch product, reduce viscosity, etc. Perhaps now, state regulators will start requiring lipids testing and labeling of products.


[1] Henry, T. et al. “Imaging of Vaping-Associated Lung Disease,” The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 381, 2019, pp. 1486-1487. [journal impact factor = 70.670; cited by 1 (ResearchGate)]

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About the author

Petar Petrov

Petar is a freelance writer and copywriter, covering culture, art, society, and anything in-between that makes for a nice story. And as it so happens, cannabis is a great element to add to each of those conversations.