New York officials investigating a deadly vaping-related lung illness plan to subpoena records of an Amherst company, amid concerns that it is selling a potentially harmful substance thought to be fueling the national crisis.
Mass Terpenes, an online business registered by an Athol man, was one of three companies nationwide hawking products shown in lab tests to be “nearly pure” vitamin E acetate oil, New York officials said. That ingredient, added to marijuana oil by illicit vape producers, is among the possible chemicals suspected of causing lung problems.
Six people have died nationwide and at least 450 have fallen ill, although it’s unclear how many of the cases are linked to marijuana, tobacco, or perhaps both. Massachusetts health officials are investigating 10 possible cases of lung problems related to vaping, but haven’t confirmed any.
“The rise in vaping-associated illnesses is a frightening public health phenomenon,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said this week, adding that he was “starting an investigation into some of these companies that produce vaping substances to find out what’s in it.”
The investigation illuminates the legally murky world of vaporizer cartridge manufacturing, in which illicit suppliers and dealers hawk their products and post cookbook-like instructions on anonymous online message boards with scores of members.
These types of companies can fall between government cracks. The state Cannabis Control Commission only oversees licensed pot businesses, while health officials are concerned with tracking the illnesses, and police are focused on large-scale illegal marijuana dealers.
There is little oversight on the ingredients, and it’s not clear whether Mass Terpenes and others like it have done anything illegal in selling the fillers, thickeners, or “terpene” chemicals used in vapes sold on the street. The chemicals may be synthetic or derived from cannabis, hemp, plants, or fruits.
Mass Terpenes did not return e-mails seeking comment. An account on the website Reddit purporting to represent Mass Terpenes acknowledged in a post this week that the company had sold a vitamin E additive, but said the product accounted for a small fraction of the company’s sales, and the person had believed the commonly used substance was safe. The posting was later deleted.
Earlier this year, the same poster said: “We just started selling this inexpensive little starter kit for anyone who’s on the fence for trying their hand at cartridge-making! . . . about as easy as baking cookies.”
Secretary of State records show the company was registered as an “online retail” business last August by Daniel J. French. The address listed for French is a brown, low-slung ranch house on a back road in Athol, where no one answered the door Wednesday.
A neighbor said no one by that name lived there. The business address is a UPS store in Amherst.
While New York is investigating companies suspected of being involved in the vaping illnesses, Massachusetts health and law enforcement officials have moved relatively slowly.
Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said Wednesday that she had never heard of Mass Terpenes. Governor Charlie Baker’s office did not return a request for comment on what the state is doing about the Massachusetts-based company or others like it. And Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said she was monitoring the situation, talking with other state agencies, and continuing her investigations into electronic cigarette manufacturers.
Marketed as safer than smoking, vaping marijuana has grown wildly popular in both legal and illicit markets for the discreet wisp of vapor it creates, compared to the stronger smell of burning cannabis. Vape cartridges — often called “carts” — typically contain concentrated cannabis extracts and an additive to create the proper flavor, viscosity, or color. The cartridges are connected to a battery and heated by coils to produce vapor for inhalation.
The recent vaping scare has changed consumer and seller behavior in both the legal and underground pot industries, said Peter Bernard, president of the Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council, a group of cannabis cultivators.
“The general consensus in the community right now is to avoid them or make sure it’s plant only,” Bernard said, adding that people feel safer smoking raw marijuana “flower.”
People familiar with the unlicensed cannabis industry said that sellers have turned to cheaper additives to boost profits on the cartridges.
“It’s always the cheaper options that have vitamin E,” said David Umeh, founder of HighSpeed Technology, an unlicensed pot delivery service that operates in Boston. “I’m proud to say nobody has had any vitamin E in our stuff. . . . But you need to make sure whoever you get your carts from has a moral code because if they don’t, then you are at risk.”
The New York subpoenas were issued to Mass Terpenes for its “Pure Diluent,” as well as Honey Cut Labs in Santa Monica, Calif., for its “Honey Cut Diluting Agent,” and Floraplex Terpenes in Ypsilanti, Mich. for its “Uber Thick” product.
New York officials said nearly all its cannabis vape cartridge samples that were submitted by sickened patients have shown “very high” levels of vitamin E acetate, which is a commonly available nutritional supplement considered safe for ingestion or topical application.
However, inhaling it is thought to lead to the breathing and lung issues many hospitals are seeing.
The cannabis commission does not regulate the ingredients used in licensed marijuana stores’ vape cartridges, which health and industry leaders told the Globe poses a safety problem for consumers, as licensed producers could source their ingredients from anywhere.
At least one retail store carried Mass Terpenes’ products -- the Buckeye smoke shop in Akron, Ohio. But a man who answered the business’s phone said they have not sold well and would likely be removed from shelves.
“This is the first time we’ve heard or been alerted to any problems with this,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “I wish companies would list exactly what is precisely in it, and I wish they would go as natural as possible.”