Beware The Waterpipe – What You Didn’t Know About Hookah

It’s marketed as safer, better, and maybe even more cool than smoking. And 1 in 5 college students report having tried it. But is the Hookah waterpipe really as safe as it’s purported to be?

Using a custom-built testing apparatus, researchers at the University of California Irvine analyzed emissions during a typical communal waterpipe session and made a disturbing finding – one draw from a pipe can contain as many noxious substances as smoke from an entire cigarette (Perraud et al., 2019).

“Hookah mainstream smoke – that which is directly inhaled by the user – has many toxic and harmful chemicals, such as nicotine, which can lead to tobacco addiction; irritating carbonyl compounds; and benzine, a known carcinogen,” explains lead author Veronique Perraud. “And due to the greater volume inhaled for every puff and the longer duration of a smoking session, the hookah oftentimes delivers a higher dose of those chemicals to the smoker” (Perraud, 2019).

Even more, because a hookah pipe requires the burning of charcoal to heat the tobacco or herbal mixture in its bowl it produces an excessive amount of carbon monoxide, and the study found that in several cases hookah users have suffered from CO intoxication (Perraud et a. al., 2019).

Yet many argue that the herbal alternative nicotine-free mixture is much safer. However, in studying this mixture, the team found that it had even higher levels of toxic gases present in the mainstream smoke. Further, in measuring the chemical composition of both gases and solids emitted during a hookah session in real time found that the exposure to ultrafine particles – those with a diameter smaller than 100 nanometers – the researchers found that it is not consistent even in the same smoking session (Perraud et al., 2019).

“Typically, researchers would collect samples from a filter capturing smoke and particles from an entire session, rendering one data point,” Perraud said. “But through our technique of testing emissions in the beginning, midpoint and end of a smoking session, we were able to show that a smoker is exposed to a higher quantity of ultrafine particles during the first 10 minutes compared to the rest of the time” (Perraud, 2019).

And these miniscule particles can pose significant health risks because they can make their way far into the pulmonary system, even crossing the blood-brain barrier.

Perraud noted that one of the big myths about hookah usage is that the water in the bowl actually filters out the toxic chemicals, providing a shield for the smoker. Yet as her study demonstrated, not so for most of the gases and that, possibly due to its cooling effect, water actually promotes ultrafine particle formation (Perraud, 2019).

While this study is just one of many that Perraud and her team plan to carry out, likely there will be many more myths about hookah smoking that will be uncovered. For now, what we can say is that the jury is still out on whether hookah waterpipe smoking is any healthier than traditional cigarette smoking.

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