Q&A: Lab Testing After the Vape Crisis
Cannabis product safety is under scrutiny as never before. Following the 2019 vape crisis which sickened more than 2,000 and killed dozens, consumers have good reason to want to know what’s in their weed. While the culprit is believed to be vitamin E acetate, a dilutant once popular with unlicensed vape companies, testing labs are on the front lines of protecting the legal pot supply.
To better understand the issues involved, WeedWeek interviewed Frank Traylor, CEO of Colorado cannabis testing company AgriScience Labs about naturally occuring vitamin E, the next product safety crisis and his predictions for 2020. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Who is AgriScience Labs?
AgriScience is a Colorado certified marijuana testing laboratory. We were founded in 2013 and licensed in 2014 making us the longest standing certified testing lab in the country. We provide primarily regulated testing for Colorado companies.
What should a cannabis company look for when choosing their lab?
Different customers have different needs. Some shop exclusively on price. We believe that trust, consistency, and communication are the most important factors in selecting a lab. Most important, the client must trust their lab to ensure they have compliant products. There have been products pulled off the shelf that tested positive for contaminants. A lab should be trusted to ensure this doesn’t happen. Second, test results must be consistent between samples and over time. We measure the variance of each test against historical results to identify issues either internally or externally. Our customers use our results to refine growing methods and produce complex products. They need to know that our results accurately reflect changes that they have made or perhaps problems that have emerged in their processes. Third: Communications. Our scientists are available for consultation with customers. Sometimes this is to discuss unexpected results, other times we may compare testing methods to ensure best practices.
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What do you currently test for? Of that what’s required and what is optional?
We perform the Colorado regulated tests: potency, homogeneity, total yeast and mold, e coli and salmonella, residual solvents, pesticides, and heavy metals. We see mostly submissions for these tests to meet regulatory requirements but sometimes we’ll see submissions for these tests as R/D during product development. We also test for vitamin E acetate as the current vaping crisis has driven a lot of interest.
How has the vaping crisis changed your business and lab testing more generally?
We haven’t seen a large change but the volume of cartridges tested has certainly decreased. We think this will bounce back as we haven’t seen dangerous levels of contaminants in any legal Colorado cartridges. In general, I think that labs are being forced to look for the new contaminants identified by the CDC as potentially dangerous. We don’t have regulatory requirements to perform these tests in Colorado but they are being requested.
Frank Traylor Courtesy Agriscience Labs
You’ve said you’ve found natural Vitamin E acetate in products. What does that refer to?
Vitamin E is present in plant material and a small amount of vitamin E converts to vitamin E acetate. We are seeing levels as high as 400 parts per million.
It sounds like what you’re saying is there are trace amounts of it occur naturally in plants but not at concerning levels.
We don’t know the safe level of vitamin E acetate but we do know that black market vapes that have shown to cause lung illness have as much as 500-1,000 times this amount of vitamin E acetate in the synthetic form.
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What do you regard as some of the potential product hazards that the industry needs to look out for in incoming months?
We see a good level of safety in the regulated market. We don’t have enough data yet to know the level of heavy metal failures but I can imagine there are some outdoor grows that will have hits. The feds are working quickly to regulate hemp and I imagine that we’ll see some contaminants depending on the growing conditions. It’s impossible to predict hazards that emerge, such as vitamin E acetate, but I believe that the oversight of the federal and state health authorities quickly provide oversight and correction.
What do you see as some of the big misunderstandings about lab testing in terms of how it’s practiced in the regulated industry?
Lab testing isn’t an exact science. There is inherent variability in sampling, prep, and analysis. We know that we produce accurate results based on our historical analysis. The variation that we do see, and the anomalies that we identify, are seen by some as a lack of scientific rigor. It should be understood that there is inherent variability in testing.
There’s talk about lab shopping where companies go around and try and find the lab that’ll give them the highest potency. Is this a major issue from what you’ve seen?
Yes, it is an issue. Customers will make more money on higher potency results and lose less money on fewer contaminant failures. When there is a financial incentive to use a particular lab, and that lab is certified, some growers will follow the money. We’ve seen that demonstrated in other states. I believe that the problem is less in Colorado because our industry is more mature. Regular regulatory oversight of labs is important.
Do you have any predictions for 2020?
Each state that comes online will experience large market and regulatory fluctuations. There will be problems with too few businesses, then too many, fluctuating until equilibrium. Same with product gluts and shortages. This will be even more pronounced in the hemp market. Hemp regulation will overshoot and divert a lot of supply from regulated supply chains to black market. When marijuana finally becomes legal federally (2021?) we’ll see federal legislation cause huge disruptions in the market.
Do you anticipate more standardization across state lines? Do you see regulators approaching consensuses on these issues and sort of standard procedures?
I’m surprised at how little standardization there is across state lines. This is starting to improve with better communication between state agencies. Federal regulation of hemp will drive standardized testing and that standardization will transfer over time into marijuana testing.