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Heavy Metal Inhalation in Cannabis Users: New Study Funded at the Colorado School of Public Health

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Researchers from the Center for Health, Work & Environment (CHWE) at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) have received funding from the Institute for Cannabis Research (ICR) to study the potential exposure to heavy metals from smoking or vaping cannabis.  

The three-year study aims to evaluate the risk of health effects from cannabis consumption (smoking or vaping) contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, nickel, cadmium, manganese, uranium. It is the first known human health risk assessment to evaluate the large number of heavy metals that may be present in cannabis flower, concentrates and vape devices.  

This project will answer public health and regulatory questions of national and international interest regarding cannabis usage. When inhaled, even at low levels, heavy metals have been associated with dangerous and harmful health effects. Cannabis users, either those who smoke or vape, can inhale heavy metals due to plants absorbing metals from soil, contaminated irrigation water or fertilizers, and/or heavy metal leaching from vape hardware. Inhalation exposure to heavy metals can increase a user’s risk for cancer as well as neurological, renal, cardiovascular, and hepatic issues.  

“We know that exposure to metals can have systemic health impacts and leading one of the first studies to evaluate the contribution of vaping cannabis is an important public health effort,” said Katherine James, PhD, MSPH, MSCE, project co-investigator and associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the ColoradoSPH. Alongside this project, James is also researching in-utero heavy metal exposure and adverse birth and pregnancy outcomes among individuals in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. 

Metal exposure from cannabis vaping poses significant public health concern. The percentage of individuals primarily using cannabis by vaping has increased 50% between 2017 and 2019 in the U.S. Past research has detected chromium, lead, tin, and nickel in cannabis vapors at higher concentrations than are found in tobacco smoke.  

Currently, cannabis is regulated for only four heavy metals (lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury) despite known health effects from other heavy metals likely to be present in cannabis products. Pharmaceutical products, on the other hand, are regulated for 24 heavy metal or “elemental” impurities.  

“We are excited to finally get an opportunity to look at cannabis heavy metal contamination and exposures in a systematic way. This project should answer a number of long-standing questions and provide important information to consumers, medical users and the regulatory community,” said Mike Van Dyke, PhD, project principal investigator and associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the ColoradoSPH and CHWE. 

This project brings together an innovative partnership between academic researchers with extensive experience in heavy metal contamination and toxicology, as well as specific experience in cannabis regulations and policy with Kaycha Laboratories, a national cannabis testing laboratory with state-of-the-art testing facilities.  

The study will also give patients and consumers important information on the potential health risks that heavy metal contaminated cannabis products pose and will have direct and immediate impacts on cannabis public health regulations, growing practices, and specifications on vape devices nationwide.

About the Center for Health, Work & Environment 

The Center for Health, Work & Environment is an academic center within the Colorado School of Public Health. The Center is one of 10 Centers of Excellence for Total Worker Health® and houses the Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center (MAP ERC), one of 18 centers of its kind supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The Center team works with faculty, students, and community partners to advance worker health, safety, and well-being. The Center is committed to develop education, research, and public health practice initiatives that combat the problems of racial and environmental inequity and injustice facing workers. To effectively address the future of work, we aim to ensure a healthier and safer workplace for all. Main offices for the Center are located at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado.  

About the Colorado School of Public Health

The Colorado School of Public Health is the first and only accredited school of public health in the Rocky Mountain Region, attracting top tier faculty and students from across the country, and providing a vital contribution towards ensuring our region’s health and well-being. Collaboratively formed in 2008 by the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, and the University of Northern Colorado, the Colorado School of Public Health provides training, innovative research and community service to actively address public health issues including chronic disease, access to health care, environmental threats, emerging infectious diseases, and costly injuries. Learn more and follow Colorado SPH’s updates on Facebook, Twitter and and Instagram