Hookahs, a type of water pipe, are considered to be a safe a popular way to smoke, and a healthier alternative to cigarette smoking. But a new study finds that the fumes from hookahs’ water pipes contain the toxic chemical benzene.
Nada Kassem, the study author and associate director of the Center for Behavioral Epidemiology and Community Health at San Diego State University, said, “In contrast to what is believed, hookah tobacco smoking is not a safe alternative to smoking other forms of tobacco.” She further explained, “Hookah tobacco smoking involves the use of burning charcoal that is needed to heat the hookah tobacco to generate the smoke that the smoker inhales.”
The urine of 105 hookah smokers and 103 nonsmokers was tested after an event in a hookah lounge, where both smokers and nonsmokers alike were exposed to the hookah smoke. Study researchers analyzed the S-phenylmercapturic acid (SPMA) levels in the urine and found that SPMA levels were 4.2 times higher than normal in hookah smokers, and 2.6 times higher in than normal in the nonsmokers.
“In addition to inhaling toxicants and carcinogens found in the hookah tobacco smoke,” Kassem said, “hookah smokers and nonsmokers who socialize with hookah smokers also inhale large quantities of charcoal combustion-generated toxic and carcinogenic emissions.”
Benzene, a key ingredient in gasoline, is a sweet-smelling chemical that is used to make plastics, lubricants, dyes and adhesives. It has also been linked to several blood disorders and cancers, specifically leukemia and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Kassem’s study provides the first evidence for uptake of benzene in both smokers and non-smokers of benzene. The study points out, “Because there is no safe level of exposure to benzene, our results call for interventions to reduce or prevent hookah tobacco use, regulatory actions to limit hookah-related exposure to toxicants including benzene, initiate labeling of hookah-related products, and include hookah smoking in clean indoor air legislation.”