Playing With Fire: Safer Ways To Fire Up Your Cannabis
Safer ways to fire up your cannabis
Countless medical studies have shed light upon the health risks of smoking herbs, be they tobacco or cannabis, and smokers acknowledge those risks. Yet most smokers tend to hide behind a smokescreen of denial in recognizing the risky business of inhaling the ignition fumes from lighters or matches. Their foul odors alone should alert us that they are unsafe to breathe. Because if you’re smelling them, then you’re breathing them.
Typically, you light up a tobacco cigarette just once. Chemical additives that control the burn rate account for that one-match wonder.1 Thankfully, even corporate cannabis lacks such additives. Our joints sometime require firing up a second time, and pipefuls several times. As the cumulative ignition fumes for every joint or pipeful of cannabis pose more risks than the single flick per tobacco cigarette, it is high time to explore safer ways to tune up your ignition system.
The Unmatched Hazards Of Matches
Most matches are “safety matches,” the word “safety” distinguishing them from less common “strike-anywhere matches.”
Strike-anywhere matches contain potassium, phosphorus, sulfur, and perchlorates combined into one matchhead. Perchlorates also ignite explosives, flares, and fireworks. Stand anywhere within their striking distance and you will be made painfully aware of the foul smell of the plume from strike-anywhere matches. Simply sitting in the box, they smell toxic.
Safety matches are those you must strike on the matchbook or matchbox. The sulfur and highly flammable phosphorus are removed from the matchhead. Instead, they are placed into the striking strip glued to the matchbox or matchbook. Thus the phosphorous and sulfur do not fill the air with their toxic fumes. Safety matches, indeed, are safer for your lungs.
Matchsticks of both types of matches present another peril. Hold them for too long and, ouch! You’ll burn your fingers. Numerous studies have proven that burns are not conducive to good health.
Hot air rises, so when striking a match hold it at arm’s length or over your head. You might feel funny, but because you’re not inhaling the matchhead’s fumes, you’ll breathe easier.
Making Sparks With Spark Lighters
Flicking a lighter fills the air with less noxious fumes than striking a match, so lighters are potentially safer than matches. Cheap, disposable lighters designed to fit inside a pack of cigarettes are sparked by ferrocerium flint, while non-disposable models are sparked by piezo quartz.
Flint lighters require you to flick the flywheel with your thumb. After many flicks the tip of your thumb forms callouses, even abrasions. Flicking the flywheel creates a spark by scraping against ferrocerium, a hazardous metal. By flicking, you create a toxic cloud of microscopic ferrocerium dust. Allow that ferrocerium dust to settle before you hold the flame to your joint. Forget about these for pipes. The flames from flint lighters rise only vertically, same as from candles. For pipes, if you hold lighters sideways, their flames easily extinguish while you inhale, thus inhaling incompletely combusted butane fumes, which are worse than combusted fumes. More about that in a moment.
Piezo lighters are sparked by quartz crystals that create an electrical charge. They eliminate the toxicity of ferrocerium flint. Their flames can be aimed sideways and even upside-down. Also known as torch lighters or cigar lighters, they are ideal for firing up pipes. In fact, piezo lighters are also called pipe lighters. Ignited by a pushbutton rather than a sparkwheel, piezo lighters are kind on both your thumbs and your lungs.
Both flint lighters and piezo lighters are usually fueled by butane. Beware butane.
Fanning The Flames Of Butane
As the most common fuel for cigarette lighters, butane is stored in the lighter under pressure as a liquid. Once released from the lighter, the liquid turns into a colorless gas with a very faint but unpleasant odor. If you’ve always ignored the frightening fine print on the warning labels on lighters, once you do read one, you’ll probably never again want to hold a lighter in your hands.
Butane fumes are both toxic and intoxicating. Some foolish little kiddies, desperate to get high, intentionally sniff non-combusted fumes from butane cannisters. Doing so can prove fatal.2 Small-dose effects include headache, dizziness, and coughing. Effects from repeated use include kidney, liver, heart, and brain damage.3 The direst effects are from non-combusted fumes straight from the butane cannister or lighter. So never press on the lever of the lighter without sparking it. Yet even when they do light the butane, your first toke will cause you more harm than any smoke from any herb, be it tobacco or cannabis. Because during that first toke to fire up your herb, way too many smokers also inhale the butane fumes.
As a sober-minded adult, keep your lighter out of reach of children. And as an adult, go light on your use of lighters.
Flaunting Flameless Lighters
Flameless lighters have been dubbed with a variety of descriptive names such as Tesla lighters, electric-arc lighters, electronic-coil lighters, and plasma-beam lighters. Nowadays almost all get juiced on USB charges, so add USB lighters as an alias. While the buzzword “plasma” sounds like something living, and “electric-arc” adds some hi-tech allure, calling them “flameless” better distinguishes them from the more ubiquitous flame-emitting butane lighters.
Flameless lighters are windproof, waterproof, and leakproof. Their buttons, unlike those on flint lighters, are easy on your thumb. Free of chemicals and odors, they eliminate the toxicity of both flint and butane. Press its button, and the coil emits an arc-shaped spark that dances between two electrodes. Place your joint into that arc, and your joint ignites. Because the housing or the cap can get in the way, the arc of many flameless lighters cannot reach inside the bowl of a pipe. That’s a job for flameless torch lighters.
Rather than single-coiled, flameless torch lighters are double- or triple-coiled. The bowls of pot pipes are smaller and shallower than those of tobacco pipes, so smaller torch lighters that make no claim about being suitable for tobacco pipes often work fine for pot pipes. Larger torch lighters, also called “pipe lighters,” work fine for tobacco and cannabis alike.
Never apply a torch lighter to a pipe’s metal bowl unless its shaft is wood and you are holding the pipe by its shaft. Otherwise, it will shock you with a mild electrical impulse. Still, you might relish such a shocking experience, like schoolchildren do during static electricity experiments in science class.
Compared to fossil fuel butane, the ignition of rechargeable flameless lighters is eco-friendlier. Hardly emitting any detectable odor, they are safer to inhale. No flame, no fumes, no smoke. Unfortunately, absent from this list is “no problem.” The technology is still in its infancy. Even high-priced models remain functional for barely a few months. Over time, charges do not last long, and recharging takes longer. Their nonreplaceable batteries soon die, leaving you with a nonrecyclable hunk of junk.
Choose Your Weapon
Match or lighter? Striking a match fills the air with more noxious fumes than does flicking any lighter, so you would think that lighters win over matches. Not so fast! A match can be an appropriate tool when you’re lighting up a pipe rather than a joint. So, the first question is, joint or pipe?
Health Tip for Lighting Up Joints: With your two hands occupied striking a match, you must hold a joint in your mouth, where you can’t avoid inhaling ignition fumes. In contrast, with one hand flicking a lighter and the other grasping the joint, you can hold both at arm’s length. That distance minimizes your exposure to the ignition fumes of a lighter. So, to more safely light up joints, look to lighters.
Health Tip for Lighting Up Pipes: Unless the pipe stem is more than a foot (30 cm) long, when lighting the bowl you’re holding that flame right under your nose. Smoked leisurely, especially during solo sessions, cannabis snuffs out easily, requiring several firings per bowl. That’s toxic buildup. Nix to matches and cheap lighters that force you to suck in that flame. When smoking a pipe, the safer ignition system is the piezo lighter that can aim its flame sideways or downward, and safer still is the flameless pipe lighter.
The Fire Power Of Candles
But wait! You can still more safely use matches or cheap flint lighters. Strike just one match or hit just one flick, not to light your pipe, but to light a candle.
Candles are made from a variety of ingredients, including paraffin from petroleum, beeswax from bee hives, tallow from animal fats, and vegetable oils often from palm, soy, or coconut. Hold a white sheet of paper or board high above a burning candle, and you will capture a coating of soot, which is mostly carbon ash. Soot is only what you happen to see. Hidden to the naked eye, the candle’s fumes also contain, for example, carbon monoxide,4 volatile organic compounds (VOC),5 and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).6 All are toxic.
As a petroleum distillate, paraffin is plentiful, cheap, and potentially the most harmful, as its fumes contain phthalates, a class of chemical plasticizers known to be harmful to human health.7 Health food, new age, and occult stores sell vegetable oil candles that are labeled as free of phthalates. Soy candle manufacturers make unsubstantiated claims that their candles not only emit no phthalates, but also the least amount of soot.
Despite the ubiquitous use of candles since the dawn of human history, only a few studies have evaluated the emissions from burning candles.8 We do know that added scents of any kind add to the candles’ pollutants.9 And we know that compared to the pollutants from the fumes of commonplace paraffin, beeswax is far less polluting.10
Rather than repeatedly flicking butane lighters or striking many matches, lighting a candle only once has much to commend. You can place your burning candle at arm’s length, so you are out of range from its fumes. In the candle’s flame, you can stoke up a glass wand, a hemp wick, or a toothpick. Then to toke your pipeful, apply that glowing wand, that smoldering wick, or that burning toothpick. No toxic plume in your face, so none in your lungs.
Glass wands are also called weed wands. You heat the tip of thin borosilicate glass rods and then insert them into your herb. But danger lurks after using those scorching wands. Good luck on placing the cylindrical wands somewhere safe so they won’t roll away, ignite a conflagration, and burn down your house.
Hemp wicks are spools of hemp twine coated with beeswax that burn slowly just like the wick of a candle. Igniting cannabis with hemp is a romantic notion that has inspired many a toker to give it a try. But in between tokes, you must keep a watchful eye on the flimsy and cumbersome burning wick, else it can ignite the entire spool. For hemp enthusiasts only.
Wooden toothpicks are safer than glass wands and hemp wicks. Flat toothpicks easily ignite from candles, and then stay lit long enough to fire up your pipe. They also are handy for stirring the contents of your bowl.
Health Tip for Lighting Up Pipes: Light an unscented candle made of beeswax or vegetable oil, and then place it at arm’s length, so you are out of range of its fumes. Light a flat toothpick in the flame of the candle. With the lit toothpick, light up the bowl of bud. A natural fiber same as are hemp and cannabis, it’s wood to the rescue. To misquote Jim Morrison, “Come on, baby, light my toothpick!”
Mark Mathew Braunstein contributes to many holistic health magazines, including seven times previously to Spirit of Change. He is the author of six books, including Mindful Marijuana Smoking: Health Tips for Cannabis Smokers (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2022), from which this article was excerpted. You can read his many editorials and articles about medical marijuana and recreational cannabis at www.MarkBraunstein.org.
- CDC, (How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease, Chapter 3, “Chemistry and Toxicology of Cigarette Smoke and Biomarkers of Exposure and Harm” (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010), 44, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53014/
- National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Acute Exposure Guideline Levels for Selected Airborne Chemicals: Volume 12, Chapter 1, “Butane” (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2012), 17, https://doi.org/10.17226/13377
- National Academy, Acute Exposure Guideline Levels, 19.
- Marco Derudi, Simone Gelosa, Andrea Sliepcevich, Andrea Cattaneo, Domenico Cavallo, Renato Rota, and Giuseppe Nano, “Emission of Air Pollutants from Burning Candles with Different Composition in Indoor Environments,” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 21, no. 6 (March 2014): 4320, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-013-2394-2
- Santino Orecchio, “Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) in Indoor Emission from Decorative Candles,” Atmospheric Environment 45, no. 10 (March 2011): 1888, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2010.12.024
- Orecchio, “Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons,” 1895.
- Amy Westervelt, “Chemical Enemy Number One: How Bad Are Phthalates Really?,” The Guardian, February 10, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/10/phthalates-plastics-chemicals-research-analysis
- Derudi, “Emission of Air Pollutants from Burning Candles,” 4320.
- Marco Derudi, Simone Gelosa, Andrea Sliepcevich, Andrea Cattaneo, Domenico Cavallo, Renato Rota, and Giuseppe Nano, “Emissions of Air Pollutants from Scented Candles Burning in a Test Chamber,” Atmospheric Environment 55 (August 2012): 257, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2012.03.027
- Philip M. Fine, Glen R. Cass, and Bernd R.T. Simoneit, “Characterization of Fine Particle Emissions from Burning Church Candles,” Environmental Science & Technology 33, no. 14 (July 1999): 2360, https://doi.org/10.1021/es981039v