Misleading Labels: Cannabis e-Cigs Contain Unlisted and Unintended Components

Dec. 22, 2021

Many cannabis e-cigarettes or vapes fail to accurately list contents on their labels, according to two researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Of the 27 products tested from 10 brands, none had accurate labeling regarding Delta-8 THC, a synthetic form of the psychoactive component of cannabis, and many contained cutting agents or synthetic byproducts that were not listed on the label.

Because these products contain cannabis-derived from hemp, they are legal under federal law and widely available in brick and mortar vape shops and online. However, products containing Delta-8 THC are not evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has expressed concern about the health risks associated with these products.

“Cannabis e-cigs and Delta-8 THC have been linked to health issues,” said Irfan Rahman, Ph.D., the dean’s professor of Environmental Medicine at URMC who led the research. “The bottom line is: We are just starting to understand what is really in these products and we don’t yet know if these unlisted components are safe.”

In the study, published in Chemical Research in Toxicology, Rahman and fellow study author Jiries Meehan-Atrash, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Rahman’s lab, evaluated each of the cannabis e-cig or vaping products via proton nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a highly accurate technique used to measure unknown compounds in mixtures.

They found that 11 of the tested products contained byproducts of Delta-8 THC synthesis, including heavy metals, like mercury and lead, and unintended cannabinoids, including one that had never before been described and several others whose safety is unknown.

Delta-8 THC levels listed on product labels varied as much as 40 percent from levels detected in Rahman’s lab. This suggests that the companies producing these e-cigs either have poor testing capabilities, as appeared to be true for one brand, or falsified their results, which may have been the case for four other brands.

“The lab tests on the packaging are almost all false, according to our studies so far,” said Meehan-Atrash. “We hope that products in New York will soon be subject to more stringent regulation, including requiring legitimate and certified lab results and packaging labels.”

Rahman and Meehan-Atrash hope to investigate the toxicity and health effects of several components found in these products in the near future. Pending new funding, they plan to investigate the THC synthesis byproduct, olivetol, partially man-made carrier oils called medium-chain triglycerides, and triethyl citrate, a food additive often used as a dissolving agent in vaping products.

Understanding the toxicity and health effects of these compounds may help identify biomarkers and develop better therapies for e-cigarette/vaping-associated lung injury (EVALI), which has recently led to hospitalization and death of several people.