Cannabis extracts have revolutionized the way we consume weed. Vaping and dabbing continue to increase in popularity, especially as legalization makes a wider range of products available to consumers. But as recent outbreaks of vape-related health issues show, our knowledge about the safety of inhaled extracts is lagging behind their immense popularity. But a new study is shining light on what exactly happens to your cannabis extract when you press that button on your vape pen or drop a dab on a nail. And unfortunately, the results of that study show that terpenes in vaping products can produce toxic chemicals.
Vaping and Dabbing Turns Terpenes Into Toxic Chemicals
Methacrolein, benzene, methyl vinyl ketone, isoprene. You won’t find these toxic, volatile organic compounds on a list of ingredients or under the contaminants column on the lab test sheet for your concentrates. Instead, these and other toxic components are what the THC and terpenes inside your concentrates turn into when you vaporize them, according to a new study on the chemistry of concentrates.
In technical terms, this study looks at “gas phase thermal degradants,” or in layperson’s terms, the byproducts of the reaction that occurs when you vape or dab THC concentrates. But most extract products don’t just contain THC. They also contain terpene additives to give the extract its aromas, flavors and according to a few studies, additional therapeutic effects.
The study we’re talking about here looked at both THC and terpenes in laboratory-grade dabs and vaping concentrates like THC oils. Specifically, researchers analyzed what happens during the gas-phase reaction that turns concentrates into something you can inhale. And what happens, at least according to this study, isn’t very good.
THC and terpenes give off a number of gas-phase degradation products, and many of them are toxic chemicals known to cause cancer and other health risks. Furthermore, the study shows that increasing the amount of added terpenes raises the level of toxic gas-phase products, compared with vaping pure THC. In other words, the more terpenes an extract product has, the more toxic chemicals it gives off when you vape or dab it.
Even Your Vape Pen’s Voltage Settings Impact How Toxic Your Concentrates Become
Importantly, researchers also measured the levels of toxic gas-phase degradants in traditional cannabis smoke. And the results show that hazardous gas-phase products you inhale are significantly lower in dabbing and vaping compared to smoking. Still, people tend to consume dabs and vapes in very different ways than they do traditional smoking methods.
So even though, from a purely mathematical standpoint, vaping and dabbing give off fewer toxic chemicals than smoking, the higher concentrations of THC and terpenes in extracts, and the massive hits you can take off a dab, may mean that inhaling concentrates is actually exposing you to more hazardous chemicals than smoking.
Furthermore, the consumption method appears to play a big role in how much of these toxic degradants you inhale. Researchers measured the hazard index (HI) and excess lifetime cancer risk (ELCR) for smoking, dabbing and vaping at three different voltages. Smoking (which we technically call the inflorescence of cannabis) yielded a much higher hazard index and excess lifetime cancer risk than dabbing and vaping. Dabbing distillate was the second highest in terms of HI and ELCR.
And when it comes to vaping an extract like a THC oil, the lower the voltage, the less hazardous the vapor. At 4.8 volts, for example, HI and ELCR are much higher than they are at 3.2 volts. So if you’re using a vape pen, dial it into the lowest possible setting that gets you good results. This will also help your cartridge last longer.
Studies Like This Crucial for Smart Extract Rules
Still, researchers cautioned against any premature conclusions about these relative hazard values and cancer risks. There are a huge number of variables at play. For example, the effects of higher concentrations of THC and the high-molecular weight of terpenes in the vapor can compromise lung health more than simple cannabis smoke. Hence, researchers are calling for a more investigation.
Ultimately, this is an important study that’s one of the first to really take a close look at the complex chemistry of vaping and dabbing and the risks it can pose to your lungs and overall health. As regulators work quickly to develop rules for concentrates and extracts that keep consumers safe, reliable data like the kind produced by this study is a must.