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How Safe is Your Vape Pen?
Project CBD science advisor Jahan Marcu, PhD, reports on the hidden dangers of propylene glycol and vape pens that smolder.
Portable electronic devices, known as “vape pens,” are increasingly popular among medical marijuana patients and others because they provide a convenient, discreet, and presumably benign way to administer cannabis. But how safe are vape pens and the liquid solutions inside the cartridges that attach to these devices? Who knows what’s actually
It’s generally assumed that vaping is a healthier method of administration than inhaling marijuana smoke, which contains noxious substances that may irritate the lungs. Since a vaporizer heats the cannabis flower or oil concentrate without burning it, the active ingredients are inhaled but no smoke is involved. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
But there may be a hidden downside to vape pens, which are manufactured (typically in China), marketed, and utilized without regulatory controls. Available online and in medical marijuana dispensaries, vape pens contain a battery-operated heating mechanism, which at high temperatures can transform solvents, flavoring agents, and various vape oil additives into carcinogens and other dangerous toxins.
Of particular concern: Propylene glycol, a widely used chemical that is mixed with cannabis or hemp oil in many vape pen cartridges. A syrupy, thinning compound, propylene glycol is also the primary ingredient in a majority of nicotine-infused e-cigarette solutions. At high temperatures, propylene glycol converts into toxic nanoparticles that can wreak havoc on respiratory organs.
Scientists know a great deal about propylene glycol. It is found in a plethora of common household items— cosmetics, baby wipes, pharmaceuticals, pet food, antifreeze, etc. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada have deemed propylene glycol safe for human ingestion and topical application. But exposure by inhalation is another matter. Many things are safe to eat but dangerous to breathe.
A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that airborne propylene glycol circulating indoors can induce or exacerbate asthma, eczema, and many allergic symptoms. Children were said to be particularly sensitive to these airborne toxins. An earlier toxicology review warned that propylene glycol, ubiquitous in hairsprays, could be harmful because aerosol particles lodge deep in the lungs and are not respirable.
When propylene glycol is heated by a red-hot metal coil, the potential harm from inhalation exposure increases. High voltage heat can transform propylene glycol and other vaping additives into carbonyls. Carbonyls are a group of cancer-causing chemicals that includes formaldehyde, which has been linked to spontaneous abortions and low birth weight. A known thermal breakdown product of propylene glycol, formaldehyde is an International Agency for Research on Cancer group 1 carcinogen.
Because of low oral toxicity, propylene glycol is classified by the FDA as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use as a food additive, but this assessment was based on toxicity studies that did not involve heating and breathing propylene glycol.
Prevalent in nicotine e-cig products and present in some vape oil cartridges, FDA-approved flavoring agents pose additional risks when inhaled rather than eaten. The flavoring compounds smooth and
creamy (diacetyl and acetyl propionyl) are associated with respiratory illness when inhaled in tobacco e- cigarette devices. Another hazardous-when-inhaled-but-safe-to-eat flavoring compound is cinnamon ceylon, which becomes cytotoxic when aerosolized.
Currently, there is no conclusive evidence that frequent users will develop cancer or another illness if they inhale the contents of vape oil cartridges. That’s because little is actually known about the short or long-
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