Vaped and Confused

Posted on September 16, 2019 by Tracy Hester

E-cigarettes have vaulted to the front pages lately, and for tragic reasons.  To date, at least six users have died from severe lung disease tied to vaping, and nearly 400 others have reported serious medical symptoms in 36 states and the Virgin Islands.  The reasons for the outbreak remain murky:  some investigators link the victims’ illnesses to bootleg or counterfeit nicotine cartridges, while others have focused on the addition of “thickeners” or THC and marijuana components.  Heavy abusive use of the devices has also come under suspicion.  But regardless of the explanation, e-cigarettes will likely remain in the spotlight until researchers either identify the cause or the pace of the illness starts to slow.

The furor, however, has distracted attention from another growing regulatory issue with e-cigarettes.  As vaping continues to expand into the workforce, employers have discovered that they now have to manage growing volumes of discarded vaping cartridges.  These cartridges contain residual amounts of nicotine – a deadly substance that figured prominently as a poison in Agatha Christie’s murder mystery Three Act Tragedy.  Nicotine is so hazardous, in fact, that EPA accorded it the dubious distinction of an acute hazardous waste (P075) listing under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act.  EPA listed nicotine originally in 1980, and EPA confirmed on Feb. 22, 2019 that unspent nicotine in discarded e-cigarette cartridges can constitute hazardous waste under its pharmaceutical waste rules.  While EPA exempted used nicotine patches and gums from the listing, e-cigarette cartridges containing unused nicotine failed to earn the same exemption.  And cigarette butts don’t pose the same challenges because their nicotine isn’t the sole active ingredient and isn’t pharmaceutical grade.

Home users, of course, needn’t worry because their discarded vaping cartridges are household hazardous wastes exempt from hazardous waste regulation.  But commercial facilities and industrial operators don’t enjoy that exemption, and as a result accumulated spent cartridges from their employees’ vaping can create big problems.  Because nicotine is a P-listed acute hazardous waste, facilities can quickly become large quantity generators if they accumulate more than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of spent cartridges in a month (although they may argue that only the residual liquid nicotine itself counts towards the waste tally).  Rinsing the cartridges may simply magnify the problem because the rinsate itself counts as a listed hazardous waste under the derived-from rule.  And other possible strategies, such as reverse distribution or reclamation, may not cleanly apply.

Many facility operators are only now realizing the scale of the problem.  Possible compliance strategies may not require any RCRA wizardry at all – for example, some facilities can simply ban on-site employee vaping, while others can require that employees take their spent cartridges home for disposal.  With the Trump Administration’s call to ban flavored e-cigarette cartridges and similar initiatives by Michigan and New York, the problem also may retreat if more states and agencies demand withdrawal of e-cigarettes from the market.  But facilities that can’t rely on these fixes may find themselves struggling for answers in a hazy and confused regulatory environment.



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