Getting the Lead Out

As concerns about vaping rise, Atlas Technology is striving to establish a zero-lead policy for vape cartridges

As a rash of vaping-related illnesses spread across the country recently, most businesses and regulators are investigating additives in the oil, such as vitamin E acetate, which has initially been linked with many cases of vaping-related illness. But for the past year Atlas Technology has been looking in a different direction for safer consumer products: the metal components of vaporizers and cartridges.

Since becoming president of Atlas, a Washington-based product development and consultancy firm, Kent Haehl was shocked to find that the current regulations in several states, including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada and Washington, do not specifically prohibit vaporizer hardware from containing small amounts of lead. Oil inside vaporizers can leech the lead from the hardware and, in turn, be inhaled by the consumer.

Vape cartridges

What Haehl wants to know is why any lead is allowed in the first place.

“Why did we establish a standard as an industry, even in a state as strict as California, that allows for something that is seen as toxic?” Haehl says.

Lead is highly poisonous to nearly every organ in the body. Symptoms of lead poisoning in adults include high blood pressure, anemia and severe damage to both the brain and kidneys. Children exposed to high amounts may have lower IQs, behavioral problems and learning deficits. The U.S. Center for Disease Control says adults should not exceed 10 micrograms of lead in their blood; children should not exceed five micrograms.

In most cases, state regulations require the oil itself to be tested, but not the hardware. For example, regulations in Washington allow cannabis products to have 1.2 parts per million (ppm) of lead. Brian Smith, a spokesman for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, says the 1.2 ppm allowance is based on research from the Oregon Health Authority. However, Oregon does not require testing for heavy metals in cannabis. Meanwhile, California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Nevada have stricter regulations, only allowing 0.5 ppm in cannabis products.

“Passing the heavy metals testing doesn’t mean that there are no heavy metals,” Haehl says. “It just means that it’s below the acceptable level of lead.”

And one of the reasons states have not adopted zero-tolerance policies is simply the prevalence of lead in the natural environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, soil on average contains 50 to 400 ppm of element. That metal can be absorbed by plants, including cannabis.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the amount of lead food can contain. For example, the FDA set a maximum allowance of the element in candy at 0.1 ppm. Federal standards for inhalants have not been set.

A January 2019 report from Leafly showed that testing labs, which analyzed thousands of vape cartridges, found 1 out of 200 vape cartridges contained more than 0.5 ppm of lead.

“You’ve got a product that is intended to have health benefits and you inhale this product,” Haehl says. “We don’t think any level of lead is a standard we should accept. Companies just have to commit to a higher standard.”

The intentional use of lead in products is banned in the U.S. But the vast majority of vape cartridges are made in China, and Chinese manufacturers often include small amounts of lead in alloys to make them more malleable, Haehl says.

In early 2019, Atlas Technology set out to find an alternative to cartridges made with lead.

The company dissected its vape cartridge and tested each component to see what parts contained lead. Once the process of elimination was finished, Haehl says Atlas worked with its supply partners and manufacturers to “find new components that deliver the same performance but without lead.”

After months of work, Haehl says Atlas Technology developed a lead-free cartridge that it intends to market toward the cannabis and CBD industries, proving that it’s not only possible to make a lead-free cartridge, but to do so without taking a massive hit on production costs. He says the company tested its new line of cartridges with two different labs and both tests showed no traces of lead.

“It’s not that hard if you know what you’re working toward,” he says. “We can set the bar a little higher. That’s all we want to do. We’re just saying that we think the standard should be higher than it is. We think the standard should be no detectable level of lead, not some. If we can do it others can do it. It’s not impossible and it doesn’t cost more.”

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