Hydrogen Cyanide Found In Bootleg Vapes

By Paul Gaita 10/08/19

NBC News commissioned a lab test of vape cartridges obtained from both legal and illegal sources.

bootleg vapes

Independent laboratory testing of vaping cartridges containing THC found that not only was vitamin E acetate present in the majority of samples, but also a variety of pesticides including one which, when burned, transformed into the chemical asphyxiant, hydrogen cyanide.

Testing The Cartridges

NBC News commissioned a cannabis testing facility to test cartridges obtained from both legal dispensaries and unlicensed sources. While the cartridges purchased from the former group showed no traces of pesticides, vitamin E or heavy metals, the majority of the other samples—all obtained from black market sources—showed signs of either vitamin E, the pesticides, or both.

The findings cast new concerns on the growing health problem that appears to be linked to vaping cartridges and, in particular, those containing THC.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that as of October 1, more than 1,000 lung injury cases and 18 deaths associated with e-cigarette use have been reported from 48 states and one U.S. territory.

No Smoking Gun

Most of the cases involved individuals with a history of vaping and in particular, vaping products with THC. As both NBC, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) noted, no single substance has been shown to be the direct cause for all of the lung injury cases, though some state health officials have pointed to vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent that can cause pneumonia-like symptoms if inhaled.

This lack of a core "smoking gun" led NBC News to conduct its own tests via CannaSafe, a testing facility located in Van Nuys, California. Eighteen samples of THC cartridges—three from licensed dealers and 15 from black market sources—all purchased in California were included in the test.


None of the three cartridges from legal dispensaries showed any signs of dangerous agents like pesticides or solvents like vitamin E. But in 13 of the 15 obtained from unlicensed dealers, CannaSafe researchers found vitamin E acetate, while 10 of the 15 all tested positive for several different pesticides, including myclobutanil, a fungicide which will become hydrogen cyanide when burned.

Also known as prussic acid or hydrocyanic acid, the colorless gas was described by the CDC as having the ability to "interfere with the normal use of oxygen in nearly every organ in the body," and can be almost immediately fatal.

In recent testimony before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Ned Sharpless said that his agency, along with the DEA, is currently pursuing the source of the tainted vape cartridges, but does not intend to target individuals unless they are found to be distributing products "that caused illness and death for personal profit."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.