By Jade Cox

A study that has caught our attention here at The Stoned Society is “Toxicant Formation in Dabbing: The Terpene Story” by Jiries Meehan-Atrash, Wentai Luo, and Robert M. Strongin at the Portland State University. First reported on by the Oregon Live newspaper. It said dabbing releases carcinogens, or so it could.

let’s take a look at what this study really tells us

We love to see new studies come out so we can get a good idea of the science behind what cannabis does and its many routes of administration. Unfortunately, when a study like this comes out you will find many media outlets with the usual “CANNABIS IS TOXIC!!!”, “NEW CANNABIS DABBING TECHNIQUE FORMS TOXIC CHEMICALS!!!” and “WONT PLEASE SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!” headlines that have helped perpetuate the drug war for all these years.

So, let’s take a look at what this study really tells us.

Dabbing releases carcinogens? 

dabbing releases carcinogens
First graph from the study on dabbing releases carcinogens. Source: Toxicant Formation in Dabbing: The Terpene Story

Myrcene is the terpene most commonly found in cannabis and so the researchers used this terpene for most of their experiments. They also did some with limonene and linalool.

Above is the table that most of the conclusions in the paper are drawn from. Note the different temperatures on the left and the production of harmful chemicals on the right. As we can see, the higher the temperature, the more benzene and methacrolein is formed. Note the “ND” which means “No Data” entry in the lowest temperature of methacrolein and the three lowest temperatures of the benzene test.

This table shows that only the highest temperature of 526°C (quite considerably above the preferred dabbing temperature mentioned in the paper as 378 °C) produced measurable levels of benzene, although methacrolein was produced in all but the lowest temperature of tests.

In the results, the researchers state that:

“Because dabbing topography has not been previously investigated, we chose an inhalation volume of 338 mL and a 10s duration to assure a more complete collection of vapor. The concentrations of MC in ppb per dab in this regime are 185 ± 11 ppb at Tm = 526 °C, 157 ± 2 ppb at Tm = 455 °C, 131 ± 9 ppb at Tm = 403 °C, and undetectable at Tm = 322 °C.

Benzene was not detected below the highest TR. Using the same rationale as above for MC emission, one dab of BHO delivers 17 ng of benzene. Represented as a concentration in the draw volume, this value is 15 ± 1.8 ppb.”

So, they say that (based on an average of their results) each dab delivers 17ng of benzene. This is in fact only produced when very high temperatures are used according to the study and in addition, is 30,000 times less benzene than is produced when smoking a single cigarette (approx. 500µg).

The production of methacrolein is a little more complicated and more difficult to assess because the toxicity of methacrolein is not well studied but this chemical is also produced when smoking a cigarette and likely at much higher levels than the dab creates.

Dabbing releases carcinogens, but at 550°C

The following table shows production of benzene and methacrolein with different terpenes and also the commercially available (in the US) “Fire OG” terpene mix (Blue River extracts). Note the really high 550° temperature used.

dabbing releases carcinogens
Dabbing releases carcinogens? Maybe at 550 C. But who dabs this hot? Source: Toxicant Formation in Dabbing: The Terpene Story

So, what can we gain from this study at this point?

  • Dabbing can create some harmful chemicals in very small quantities and more study is required.
  • The concentration of benzene found in the study per dab is 30,000x lower than in a single cigarette.

Smoking anything poses some risk to your health (duh!)

  • Smoking anything poses some risk to your health (duh!).
  • More study is required into methacrolein formation from heating terpenes and the toxicology of methacrolein.
  • The temperatures involved are very high compared to most dabbing temperatures and the amount of these chemicals produced at lower temperatures are significantly lower or even undetectable.

Let’s hope that we can move into the future with a clear head and less sensationalism when these kind of studies come out.