Health Canada to start testing cannabis vape emissions from products already on market

The federal government says it's preparing to test the health effects of inhaling substances emitted from cannabis vaping products already legally for sale in Canada.

Agency tells CBC News it's 'expanding' its 'laboratory capability'

Cannabis vapes are among a series of new products — including edibles, extracts and topicals such as lotions — that can be legally sold in Canada as of Tuesday. Their availability comes amid an international outbreak of vaping-related illness. (Steve Helber/The Associated Press)

Health Canada says it's preparing to test the health effects of inhaling substances emitted from cannabis vaping products that are already legally for sale in Canada.

Agency spokesperson Eric Morrissette said in a statement this week it has "research underway" on the emissions of nicotine e-cigarettes and is now "expanding" its "laboratory capability" to include the testing of cannabis vapes as well. 

The statement comes after CBC News reported the federal health agency does not conduct emissions testing on cannabis vapes and one company pre-emptively pulled its product over health and safety concerns. 

Cannabis vapes are among a series of new products — including edibles, extracts and topicals such as lotions — that can be legally sold in Canada as of Tuesday.

Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec have outright banned the sale of cannabis vapes, and Nova Scotia will not allow flavoured versions

The products have not yet appeared in legal cannabis stores or websites in Canada, but Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Tuesday they can now be legally sold by authorized retailers under "strict rules." 

Cannabis vaping product for sale despite lack of Health Canada testing

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Cannabis vaping products have legally hit the market in most provinces despite the fact Health Canada hasn’t tested how safe they are.

"Licensed processors are responsible for ensuring that all their products meet safety requirements, and that none of their products contain anything that may cause injury to the health of the user," Hajdu said in a separate statement.

"Given the recent cases of vaping-associated lung illnesses, Health Canada requested additional information from licensed processors on the ingredients and product formulation of certain vaping products they intend to sell in Canada's legal market."

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As of Dec. 10, 2,409 cases, including 52 deaths, have been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in all 50 states this year.

There have been 14 cases of vaping-associated lung illness reported to the Public Health Agency of Canada, as of Dec. 10. Three occurred in British Columbia, two in New Brunswick, four in Ontario and five in Quebec.

The majority of the cases of vaping illness are linked to illicit cannabis vapes. The CDC has not singled out any one brand but recommends that people not use the devices at all.

On Nov. 28, Health Canada sent out a request for "further information" on the 359 notices of intent to sell that it received from 34 licence holders or processors that had requested to sell the products and found two that may have already violated regulatory requirements.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people not use cannabis vaping devices at all. (The Associated Press)

That information request was not emissions-related, but instead asked for detailed measurements of each individual ingredient, their classification and composition and the name of the supplier. 

"The department has had subsequent communications with two licence holders, where examination of the additional information identified potential non-compliance with regulatory requirements," Morrissette said in the statement. 

"In all these instances, the licensed processor in question has stated that they have chosen to voluntarily not introduce these products to the market at this time." 

Morrissette said ethyl alcohol and medium chain triglycerides (MCT oil), a common extract from coconut oil, may have been found in the products but did not identify the licence holders in question. 

Canadian cannabis companies Canopy Growth, Aphria, Aurora Cannabis and Organigram said that they do not test the emissions of their devices, as it is not required by the federal government. 

HEXO, a Canadian cannabis company that made headlines after it announced in October it would sell cannabis cheaper for $4.49 a gram, said last week it will not yet release cannabis vapes because of concerns about their safety. 

A Hexo employee examines cannabis plants in one of the company's greenhouses in Masson-Angers, Que. The firm said it's holding off releasing its cannabis vapes because of safety concerns. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Similar to the rules for nicotine e-cigarettes, banned ingredients for cannabis vape oils include added vitamins or minerals, nicotine or alcohol, caffeine and added sugars, sweeteners or colours. 

That includes vitamin E acetate, which has been identified as a "chemical of concern" by the CDC in the vaping-related illness outbreak across North America but has not officially been confirmed as the culprit.  

But Health Canada will allow flavours, the use of which has been discouraged by the Canadian Paediatric Society in nicotine-based vaping products because of a fear that they will make the products more attractive to young users.

Flavouring chemicals, such as diacetyl (found in buttery flavours), are also associated with conditions, such as "popcorn lung," and pulegone (found in menthol) can have toxic effects when vaped at high levels. 

Health Canada said it requires those licensed to sell cannabis vaping products to test vaping liquids for contaminants and to maintain records of the test results, which it can verify during inspections. The agency can also take samples for independent testing, it said.

In a previous statement, Morrissette said that diacetyl and vitamin E acetate have not been found in the ingredients of licensed processors to date, but did not provide details on other flavouring chemicals that may be present.

He added that providing legal access to regulated cannabis products "is one of the best ways to protect Canadians from the risks posed by products from the illegal market," and Health Canada is in close contact with the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "to better understand their investigations into the cause or causes of the illnesses."


Adam Miller

Senior Health Writer

Adam Miller is a senior health writer with CBC News. He's covered health and medical science news extensively in Canada for over a decade, in addition to several years reporting on crime, politics and current affairs throughout Asia.