Vape Cartridges | Fifth Ave Green House

Are some vape cartridges contaminated with heavy metals and lead?

In the fall of 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of Health announced a comprehensive review of all vape cartridges and disposable vape pens in the state. On February 4 of this year, when the review was completed, the Department of Health issued a full recall, stating that “some of the added ingredients have not been approved for inhalation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).”

The list of recalled products is 18 pages long, leaving consumers wondering what they're smoking and when they can trust retailers again. Fortunately, this is the first recall in the six-year history of Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program, but it's not the first time health officials have had to penalize a processor for ignoring toxicity standards.

Once again, consumers must ask themselves: Do all e-cigarettes contain metals? This article examines the latest data on heavy metals (sources of pollutants) in e-cigarettes and offers tips on how to avoid toxic e-cigarette cartridges.

Where does metal pollution come from?

There are two main sources of metal contamination in cannabis: the soil it is grown in and the devices that consume it. The ability to absorb heavy metals from the surrounding soil is called phytoremediation. Cannabis is not the only plant that can do this, but it does it well. In fact, some believe that industrial hemp could be used to clean up contaminated soil in the future. Ideally, cannabis would be used to make textiles and fabrics that would not be consumed. When this cannabis is consumed, the metals extracted from the soil are passed on to the consumer.

A second source of metal contamination is devices used to smoke cannabis, particularly vape cartridges. Regardless of brand or model, all vape cartridges consist of three basic components: a mouthpiece, an oil-filled chamber, and a heating element called an atomizer. The atomizer heats the oil until it vaporizes, and then the vapor is drawn through a mouthpiece. This atomizer or heating element is considered a potential source of metal contamination.

In 2021, researchers at Medicine Creek Analytics in Fife, Washington, tested aerosols generated by a dozen randomly selected cartridges purchased from local retailers. Their results showed that “chromium, copper, nickel, and small amounts of lead, manganese, and tin migrate into cannabis oil and inhaled vapor.” They concluded that “the heating device itself is the source of metal contamination” and called on cannabis labs to test the oil and resulting vapor for a broader range of metals (rather than just testing before the oil is heated).

Why do vape cartridges contain lead?

In states with legal marijuana markets, vape packs must be tested for unacceptable metal contaminants—specifically arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead. But even in states with legal markets, there is no standardization. For example, Washington state allows up to 1.2 micrograms of lead per gram (µg/g) in marijuana products, while Michigan allows 2 µg/g. Oregon has no maximum limit at all.

In fact, states were forced to allow small amounts of lead because it was so cost-effective for the companies that used it. Lead is often incorporated into other metals to make it cheaper and more flexible, especially in electronics, where small wires or pieces of metal are bent and molded into tight spaces. But it's also a huge cost-cutting measure, saving pennies per unit and millions of dollars per year. But to be clear: No amount of lead is truly safe, and the CDC makes it clear that “no safe blood lead level has been established.”

Other risks associated with vapes and vape trolleys

In February 2022, Pennsylvania health officials released their 18-page list of recalled vape products, along with a 5-page list of additives not approved by the FDA for inhalation that were found in those hundreds of products. In addition to the harmful metals contained in the concentrate, some concentrates have been added with additional terpenes, emulsifiers, and preservatives that are otherwise harmless but become toxic when vaped and inhaled.

Ethyl hexanoate, for example, has a fruity aroma and is approved for consumption, but it is also flammable as a liquid and vapor and not approved for inhalation. Likewise, benzyl bromoacetate is approved for oral consumption but is also a known respiratory irritant. Both chemicals have been found in vape cartridges in Pennsylvania.

Perhaps even more notorious is a mysterious illness that emerged in 2019 linked to e-cigarettes, resulting in at least 60 deaths. E-cigarette-associated lung injury (EVALI) was ultimately linked to vitamin E acetate in black- or gray-market e-cigarette cartridges. Fortunately, states where the regulated cannabis market tests for vitamin E acetate and licensed processors do not use it specifically due to its health risks. As long as you buy legal e-cigarette cartridges from an authorized retailer, EVALI is not a problem.

How to avoid possible metal contamination

Consumers can avoid metal contamination in the first place by only purchasing vape cartridges from authorized retailers. Cheap or counterfeit vape cartridges often contain higher levels of lead, and the oil itself is almost certainly not tested before filling these cartridges, so the oil may also contain harmful metals or additives. Licensed retailers, on the other hand, must have their products tested under national health regulations in order to keep their licenses. While these regulations are not perfect and should be improved, they can at least prevent the worst types of mixing. Don't buy cheap disposable vape cartridges online from unknown sources. Instead, buy from your local registered and licensed pharmacy.

Consumers may also consider switching to a dry herb vaporizer. These are generally bulkier than vape pens, but cannabis is a more natural product that is less likely to have additives or preservatives added to it. Many dry herb vaporizers also use metal-free ceramic heating elements. You can also smoke from glass water pipes such as bongs or dab rigs.


Do vape cartridges contain lead?

Sure. Many metals are actually hardened with lead, but many of these metals do not react to human consumption. However, lead used in vape cartridges – particularly in the heating elements – has been observed to leach into cannabis oil and vapor.

Can vaping cause heavy metal poisoning?

Yes, although it's rare. In 2019, a woman was diagnosed with a lung disease that usually only affects metal workers. When doctors tested the e-cigarette she had been using, they found large amounts of lead, cobalt and aluminum.

The only thing more common than the official diagnosis of “metal poisoning” is long-term irritation of the respiratory tissue.

What metals are contained in vape cartridges?

Tests of the vape cartridges found lead, chromium, cobalt, aluminum, nickel and magnesium.

What chemicals do the cartridges contain?

The answer varies by brand and product, but generally speaking, vape cartridges are filled with a mix of terpenes, cannabinoids, diluents, emulsifiers and preservatives.

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