Vaporizers Are Not A Safe Way To Smoke Marijuana
Chris Vincent, MD, is board-certified in family medicine. He is a clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and practices at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
10/21/2019 UPDATE: Recent illnesses have been associated with use of e-cigarettes (vaping). Since the specific causes of these lung injury cases are not yet known, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends refraining from all vaping products. Because THC products appear to be implicated in many if not most of these vaping-related lung injuries, nobody should consume marijuana products by vaping.
Most people (92.1%) who use marijuana in the United States reported using only a combusted form of marijuana like from a joint or bowl, but that could be changing. Vaping cannabis products is more popular among teens and young adults, and trends show vaping overall is climbing fast in that population — in part, because many think it’s a healthier alternative to smoking.
Vaping weed, as opposed to smoking it, exposes you to fewer of the toxic compounds that come from burning cannabis. But there are still significant risks from vaping, including exposing the body to harmful ingredients and potentially increasing your chances of lung damage. Here’s what we know about the possible health impacts of vaping weed.
What Is a Vaporizer?
Before diving into the health effects of vaping, it can be helpful to first understand what it means to vaporize weed as opposed to smoking it.
If you’ve seen an e-cigarette device like JUUL, you’ve seen a vaporizer. Unlike traditional cigarettes that burn leaves to make smoke, these devices use batteries and small metal coils to heat up a liquid and create a vapor-like aerosol —which is why these devices are referred to as “vaporizers” and using them is often called “vaping.”
People vape a wide range of things, including nicotine, flavorings, and cannabis products like THC and CBD made from flower or concentrate.
Why Do People Think Vaping Marijuana Is Safer?
Smoking anything — be it tobacco or marijuana leaves — is inarguably dangerous to your health. When you smoke, you inhale very hot pieces of debris that irritate the sensitive tissue in your lungs, which is why heavy marijuana smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to have respiratory issues like chronic bronchitis . Burning leaves can also cause chemical reactions that lead you to inhale potentially toxic compounds, some of which are linked to cancer.
In contrast, vaporizers don’t burn anything. They heat up cannabis-containing fluids until they’re hot enough to create an aerosol — but not so hot that they combust. Compared to the hot, harsh smoke produced by burning leaves, the aerosol made by vaporizers feels a lot easier on the lungs. One small study, for example, found that cannabis users with breathing problems were able to recover some of their lung function after making the switch to vaping.
What Are the Risks of Vaping Marijuana?
While vaping weed might seem like a less harmful alternative to smoking it, it’s not entirely harmless. In addition to the health risks associated with THC — the psychoactive chemical in cannabis — vaping itself can be potentially damaging to a person’s health.
Potentially Harmful Ingredients
When you vape weed, it’s not the only thing you’re inhaling. Vape fluids use a wide range of ingredients to suspend THC or CBD, create a vapor-like aerosol, or add flavor — all of which can irritate the delicate tissues and air sacs in the lungs.
Part of the issue with vaping cartridges is that they haven’t been as tightly regulated as other products. Ingredients lists aren’t always complete, and people sometimes don’t know what’s inside the vaping fluids. Because there’s so much variation among vaping products, it’s difficult to say exactly what is in any one pod or device.
- Heavy metals: Vape pens themselves can cause small amounts of heavy metals or other debris to get into the aerosol you inhale, too. The tiny coils often used to heat up vaping fluid are made using a wide variety of metals that can get weakened and break down over time.
- Carcinogenic compounds: Some of the chemicals used to suspend THC or make a “vapor” can also release potentially dangerous, cancer-causing compounds when they’re heated up.
- Ultrafine particulates: Because vaporizers don’t burn leaves, they don’t have as many of the tiny pieces of debris that are found in combusted products like pipes or cigarettes. But studies show that vaping fluids can still contain some extremely tiny particulates that, when inhaled, get deep into the lungs and cause irritation.
- Flavorants: Added flavors have become popular with e-cigarettes, especially among teens and young adults, and they’re also sometimes added to vaping products with cannabis compounds. Some of the chemicals used to flavor vape fluids like diacetyl have been linked to serious lung issues when inhaled. As of Feb. 1, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans the manufacture and sale of flavored vaping products (excluding menthol and tobacco).
For its part, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has started to rein in vaping companies by sending warning letters to manufacturers who market their products using false or misleading claims about their contents. Even so, vape pen users can still purchase bootleg versions of products online or even make their own at home — neither of which are guaranteed to be tested for safety.
Higher Doses of THC
A small study published in 2018 looked at whether using a vaporizer or traditional pipe changed how weed affected the body. In it, the researchers found that inhaling vaporized cannabis resulted in participants having higher concentrations of THC in the bloodstream and more psychoactive effects than when they smoked it in a traditional pipe — even though the cannabis doses were carefully controlled to be the same at the outset.
Vaping THC and Lung Injury
In 2019, cases of severe lung disease linked to vaping started popping up throughout the United States. By November, more than 2,290 cases of the condition — dubbed e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) — were reported in every state but Alaska, and at least 47 people had died. Public health officials still aren’t sure what’s behind the outbreak, but everyone who got sick reported a history of vaping, and most reported using vaping products that contained THC.
The cases weren’t initially easy to spot, in part because they look a lot like other respiratory conditions, including the flu. The symptoms of EVALI include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Weight Loss
- Abdominal pain
The bulk of the cases were linked to bootleg products containing THC, such as those bought from informal sources or illicit dealers online, prompting the CDC to flag them as a major player in the outbreak.
Health officials still aren’t certain what specific compound or ingredient is causing the lung damage, but there is some suggestion vitamin E acetate may be a culprit. As a result, the CDC issued a recommendation that people avoid using vaping products that contain THC, especially one that was purchased off the street or that have been modified or used in a way other than intended by the manufacturer.
A Word From Verywell
Vaping marijuana might expose you to fewer toxic ingredients than smoking it, but it’s far from harmless. A lot more research is needed to fully understand the health risks associated with vaping in general and vaping marijuana and its related compounds specifically.
If you or someone you know has a marijuana or other substance use disorder, talk to your doctor about evidence-based treatment options, or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889. You can also get help by using SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.
While vaporizing weed might expose you to fewer cancer-causing substances, there are some potentially serious risks to vaping.