Customers, dispensaries concerned over vaping illnesses

  • Mark Zatyrka, CEO of Insa, talks about recent concern about vaping-related illness. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Zatyrka, CEO of Insa, talks about recent concern about vaping-related illness. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/12/2019 10:59:44 PM
Modified: 9/12/2019 10:59:34 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As a medical marijuana patient for around three years, Jack Hornor has occasionally used vaporizers from two local dispensaries: Northampton’s New England Access Treatment, or NETA, and Easthampton’s Insa.

Hornor hasn’t had any problems, and has been happy with those products. But following news reports of a mysterious, vaping-related lung illness sweeping the country, he and his husband have stopped vaping until they can get more information.

“I don’t think you can be a vaper ... and read stories about people dying from vaping products without wanting to know a little more about the vaping products that you use,” he said Tuesday.

Hornor’s concerns are shared by others as the lung disease has quickly become a public health crisis. Health officials on Thursday said 380 confirmed cases and probable cases have been reported in 36 states and one U.S. territory. Some of those affected have only used nicotine vapes, according to The New England Journal of Medicine. But many others have vaped fluid that contained THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, as well as a chemical known as vitamin E acetate, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration.

“Because consumers cannot be sure whether any THC vaping products may contain vitamin E acetate, consumers are urged to avoid buying vaping products on the street, and to refrain from using THC oil or modifying/adding any substances to products purchased in stores,” said a recent FDA statement.

Dispensaries weigh in

Hampshire County’s three dispensaries — NETA, Insa and Amherst’s Rise — all said in separate statements to the Gazette that their products do not contain any vitamin E acetate.

But the state’s normally strict Cannabis Control Commission has no regulations on the additives that regulated marijuana dispensaries can use in their vape cartridges, according to The Boston Globe. Some companies, including NETA, use the food additive propylene glycol in products, for example, which some researchers have found damages the lungs.

Following its story last week, the Globe reported that the Cannabis Control Commission on Thursday supported a regulation that would require marijuana dispensaries to disclose all of the ingredients they use in vaping cartridges, including specific terpenes — aromatic chemicals that can be created in a lab and added to cannabis products. The measure would need to be approved in an upcoming vote.

“We try to keep our products as pure as possible,” Mark Zatyrka, the CEO of Insa, said Thursday. He said his company makes almost all of its vaping products in house, and they don’t use any vitamin E acetate or propylene glycol.

Insa does add “naturally derived, food-grade” terpenes made by the company Abstrax Tech to its products, according to a recent statement to customers.

Zatyrka said Insa reached out to customers proactively about concerns over the illness, and that he thinks it is important that they are reaching out to ask questions of the company. He encouraged customers to continue to be informed and to ask questions.

“We take this very seriously,” Zatyrka said.

He added that black-market marijuana products seem to be especially dangerous, but he also welcomed additional state regulations to ensure across-the-board safety. “We need to make sure products are safe not just in our store, but across the industry.”

Insa’s disposable vape pens are made by a third party, GTI, which said in a statement that it does not use vitamin E or propylene glycol in its products. GTI is also the operator of the Rise dispensary in Amherst.

In a statement, NETA said that its vape products do not contain vitamin E acetate. Some do contain propylene glycol.

“We do offer a limited number of entry-level formulations that include propylene glycol, a widely used additive in cannabis and nicotine fills,” the statement said. “Numerous studies have shown this substance to be safe for inhalation via vaporization, and in the nearly seven years that we have provided these for patients, we have received no reports of negative health impacts and many of our patients have told us they are effective in addressing their specific health issues.”

The statement went on to say that, as part of the company’s ongoing research and development, NETA has been working to develop “additional entry level options” that are free of propylene glycol.

“We expect to begin offering these in the next month, or so,” NETA’s statement read. “Also, for those patients and customers who prefer natural alternatives, we also offer dozens of distillate-based vaporizer options that have no added excipients.”

The statement said that the significant concern over black-market vaping products underscores the need for the legal marijuana market, which requires rigorous testing procedures.

Outside of Insa on Thursday, customers said they had been concerned to hear about the dangerous vaping-related pulmonary disease.

Michael Wells, 27, said he has previously vaped both nicotine Juul pods and THC vaping products. It was the former, he added, that made him feel particularly bad.

“The Juuls were another level,” he said, describing the pain and shortness of breath the nicotine vapes gave him. The legal THC vapes, he said, didn’t make him feel like that.

Wells was with Jaime Paredes, 23, who said THC vapes gave him a nasty cough, causing him to stay away from the products.

“I just didn’t like the coughing,” he said. “I was losing my breath.”

Both agreed that they wanted more information about what goes into the vaping fluid in THC and nicotine products.

“It’s a black box of information,” Wells said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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