Butane or Wick - What does science say?

Butane or Wick - What does science say?

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As long as I have been a part of this community smokers have been arguing about the health risks associated with what you use to light up. There are two main camps in this debate, those concerned with the health risks of consuming butane and those who enjoy the simplicity of your average lighter. In this article, we will dive deeper into this debate, pulling from what science there is on the topic to arrive at the most informed conclusion possible.

I, and perhaps many of you, have known many highly intelligent people who genuinely believe they breathe easier and feel better when they separate themselves from using butane lighters to spark up, but does this necessarily mean there is a real effect? The answer unfortunately is no, largely due to the placebo effect (1). Without legitimate studies on the subject, we can’t rule this out.

So, what do we know then?

Butane

People are concerned about the health effects of butane itself, which is certainly toxic (2). However, butane combusts into carbon dioxide and water (3), neither of which are toxic to us. The fact of the matter is that the studies done on the health effects of butane have observed the consequences of ingesting large quantities of butane, mostly in people who use it directly as an inhalant (2). Despite this discrepancy, it is common in this argument to use the information from these studies as evidence of the dangers of butane lighters. This, however, is a false equivalence.

The health effects of exposure to large quantities of a substance are commonly different than the effects of exposure to smaller amounts over a longer period. One example that many of you may recognize is the case of carbon monoxide. Exposure to large amounts of carbon monoxide can be lethal, while the effects of exposure to smaller amounts over time may cause neurological damage and exacerbate heart disease (4).

The important questions for us then are, how much, if any, of the butane survives past the flame of a lighter, and how much butane are we ingesting when the flame goes out on a lighter while we are still inhaling? I haven’t been able to find a scientific study that can answer either of these questions. However, butane has been studied extensively and is a highly combustible. In an oxygen rich environment, butane is said to undergo “complete combustion” (5). As far as I can tell, this does not necessarily mean that every molecule of butane being released is combusting, but is contrasted with incomplete combustion. Incomplete combustion occurs in oxygen poor environments and produces carbon monoxide rather than carbon dioxide. The important fact to take from this, is that you should be smoking in well ventilated areas to prevent incomplete combustion. Aside from this though, we do not know if any butane survives past the flame. Further, if any does, it is in a much smaller concentration than any studies we have on butane’s health effects to date.

Wick

When asking people why they prefer wick over a lighter, a common response is, “Its natural!” Whether or not something is natural does not determine if it is healthy for you or not. Many poisonous compounds are perfectly natural. So, where does this put the use of wick then?

Unlike butane, which is a single chemical and burns into carbon dioxide and water, wick is composed of many different compounds and does not combust so simply. We do not have direct evidence of the health effects of using wick, but there have been studies of the health effects of candles, which are highly similar.  Combusting wick produces carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, and other large particulates (6, 9). These larger particles will be inhaled and can irritate your lungs. As mentioned above, small, infrequent carbon monoxide exposure is also linked to health issues (4,7). In addition to this, there are many other byproducts produced from burning elements associated with life such nitrogen containing compounds which will also be in wick fumes (7, 8, 9). Some of these risks may be limited by using bees wax coated wick (8), but the effects of smoking this has not been explored. While we don’t currently know the health effects of using wick to light up, it is important to note that the absence of evidence is not evidence of the absence of harm. This merely means that these issues need to be explored further in a research setting to glean a definitive answer.

One significant difference we are currently aware of is the temperature at which each burn. While a wick generally burns somewhere between 1500-1800°F (10), a butane lighter burns nearly twice as hot at around 3500°F (11). This may contribute to the byproducts of combusting your smokable, since at higher temperatures there is more energy to make and break bonds in combustion. This could change the composition of the smoke produced but, again, this is not something we currently know. More research is necessary on this subject.

Can we really make an informed decision today?

Probably not…at least not confidently so. We simply lack the studies necessary to justify either of these beliefs. This leaves us in a position many of us may not like to find ourselves in, living in an age with more access to information than any previously. We simply must be mindful of the potential negatives of each.

So, what should you do?

Do whichever you prefer! If you think one makes you feel better, then use that. Just realize that we do not have a confident answer as to which is healthier yet. For this reason, it is always the best practice to minimize inhaling either wick or butane fumes whenever possible. When using a lighter, be sure to minimize releasing butane without a flame to limit your exposure. On the other hand, limiting inhaling wick fumes is also recommended for the reasons stated above. Yes, that means roasting the bowl for those last few hits probably isn’t healthy with either. In other words, don’t roast the bowl! Whatever it is you chose to spark up with do what makes you happy and enjoy!



References

  1. What is the placebo effect?
  2. https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/what-is-the-placebo-effect#1
  3. Butane: Acute Exposure Guideline Levels
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK201460/
  5. Butane combustion
  6. http://www.physics-chemistry-class.com/chemistry/combustion-butane.html
  7. Carbon monoxide poisoning
  8. https://oem.bmj.com/content/59/10/708
  9. Complete vs incomplete combustion
  10. http://lchs.lpsd.ca/eteacher_download/2112/34962
  11. Chemical composition and mass emission factors of candle smoke particles
  12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaerosci.2008.10.005
  13. Role of carbon monoxide in impaired endothelial function mediated by acute second-hand tobacco, incense, and candle smoke exposures
  14. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1382668911000342
  15. Characteristics of emissions of air pollutants from mosquito coils and candles burning in a large environmental chamber
  16. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1352231005011416
  17. Emission of air pollutants from burning candles with different composition in indoor environments
  18. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-013-2394-2
  19. How hot is a candle flame?
  20. http://askascientist.co.uk/physics/how-hot-is-a-candle-flame/
  21. What temperature do lighters burn at?
  22. https://sciencing.com/temperatures-do-lighters-burn-8475271.html
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