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Vitamin E Acetate Found in a Popular European CBD Vape Products, Study Finds

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Mar 18, 2021   
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Vitamin E acetate, a diluent thickener thought to be the culprit behind a recent spate of vaping-related lung injuries seen in the United States, has been discovered in one of Europe’s most popular CBD vape products.

During a study of Europe’s fifteen best-selling CBD vape oils, researchers also found that two products tested positive for benzyl alcohol, a stabilizing agent used in cosmetics that can be toxic in high amounts.

According to the researchers from the Barcelona-based non-profit Fundación CANNA, the overall quality of European CBD products is still high enough to not present any immediate danger to consumers. However, they do believe that these findings demonstrate a need for more regulations controlling CBD product manufacturing and more transparency on the part of the manufacturers.

Potential dangers seen in one-fifth of products tested

By the fall of 2019, reports of e-cigarette or vape product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) cases in the United States were reaching their peak, hitting 1000 cases by early October. As of the last official update from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February 2020, EVALI would go on to be responsible for over 2,800 reports of lung injury and 68 deaths.

In November 2019, the first suspected EVALI-related death was reported in Europe. With the US CDC suspecting vitamin E acetate in vape e-liquids as the leading cause behind EVALI cases, the appearance of a similar case in Europe prompted Fundación CANNA to conduct a screening study of popular CBD e-liquids on the European market to identify any similar risks.

The researchers tested samples from the fifteen best-selling CBD e-liquids of 2019, all legally purchased from physical or online shops anonymously. They were analyzed using two gas chromatography with mass spectrometry (GC-MS) instruments, where one was equipped with a headspace sampler (HS-GC-MS) to measure any volatile compounds given off by the e-liquids, such as terpenes.

High-performance liquid chromatography with a diode-array detector (DAD) was used to give a precise quantification of the cannabinoids present in the e-liquids. Further GC-MS analysis using a free fatty acid phase (FFAP) as a stationary phase was also done to provide extra verification of earlier GC-MS results.

They found vitamin E acetate in one of the fifteen samples tested. GC(FFAP)-MS analysis showed fragments of vitamin E-like molecules in two further samples, but the exact identities of the compounds could not be confirmed. The sample containing vitamin E acetate was also unique in that it was the only e-liquid to not use the common combination of propylene glycol (PG) and glycerin (VG) as the base of the e-liquid matrix, suggesting that maybe vitamin E acetate had been added to stabilize the CBD in the unusual e-liquid solution.

The discovery of benzyl alcohol in two of the fifteen samples is also a concern, and an unexpected one. As the researchers explain, benzyl alcohol is produced naturally by some flowers such as jasmine and ylang-ylang, but it is also produced synthetically for use as a stabilizer in cosmetics. It is unclear why benzyl alcohol was present in these e-liquids – it could have been added deliberately during product formulation or have formed by chance as a decomposition product during heating – but its presence is a concern. If inhaled in high enough amounts, the chemical’s effects can vary from acute irritation to greater degrees of toxicity.

Issues with advertised CBD amounts also found

Fourteen of the fifteen samples studied in this new survey were found to contain significantly lower amounts of CBD than stated on the label. Only 4 of the 15 products were within a 10 percent range of the advertised CBD content.

One product contained a shocking 78 percent less CBD than promised on its label, and all of the fifteen samples were found to contain some amount of Δ9-THC.

Unfortunately these findings on poor CBD product labelling are not the outlier, they are backed up by other recent studies of European CBD products.

Laboratory tests in 2019, organized by a British trade body the Centre of Medicinal Cannabis, found only 11 out of 29 popular CBD products available in the UK to be within a 10 percent margin of the CBD content advertised on their label. A further 11 contained less than 50 percent what was advertised. Approximately half of all products contained measurable levels of THC.

The authors of the Fundación CANNA study stress that, while the presence of vitamin E acetate and benzyl alcohol is concerning, there is no data on how much of these materials must be present before it represents a risk to health. While it is generally inadvisable to use products containing these chemicals, the authors write that their presence “does not seem to represent an immediate danger for consumers.”

However, based on their presence and the additional findings on CBD mislabeling and THC content, the authors argue that there needs to be greater regulatory control over the composition of CBD e-liquids available on the legal market. Additionally, more transparent labelling practices that properly reflect CBD content, any THC content, e-liquid matrix information, added flavorings, and information on the natural uncertainties that come about from production practices could all be useful to consumers looking to make a more informed choice about what they are vaping. 


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