Hookah pipes

Saturday 30 April 2011 View all posts

I’ve never believed that teachers should tell their students how to live their lives outside of the school premises although hopefully we can certainly influence them by setting an example as good role models. We do however have the responsibility to inform them so that they can make their own choices and decisions. Within Chemistry this may be linked with ‘Aim 8’ issues which include an ethical dimension and sometimes the syllabus itself contains an explicit reference to such issues. For example Assessment Statement D.5.3 in Option D – Medicines and drugs states “Discuss the short- and long-term effects of nicotine consumption” and D.10.3 states “Discuss the arguments for and against the legalization of cannabis.”

I’m currently en-route to Kazakhstan where arguably they are importing my knowledge of western education (see my earlier blog on “How 'International' is IB Chemistry?”). The East however is exporting part of its own culture to the west. There has been a marked increase recently in the use of the hookah by students in Western countries. Hookah pipes go by several names such as shisha, narghile, galyan, water-pipe or hubble-bubble pipe but essentially they all work in similar fashion. Tobacco is heated by coal or charcoal in a bowl and the smoke is passed through water where it is ‘purified’ and cooled before entering the pipe where it is smoked. Part of the attraction of the hookah is that smoking it can be a very sociable experience. The pipe may be passed round or several pipes may come from the same hookah (see left). One of the other often quoted advantages is that as the smoke passes through water many of the harmful substances are absorbed by the water in the ‘purification’ process so that it is a lot less harmful to health than smoking cigarettes. However there is strong evidence that this is not true. Smoking a hookah can significantly increase the risk of developing lung cancer, respiratory illness and heart disease as well as causing pregnant mothers to give birth to babies with a low birth-weight.

What is alarming is the result of a recent study by researchers from The University of New York at Buffalo published in Biomedical Health Central Public Health. As perhaps might be expected the prevalence of hookah smoking by young people is high in Middle Eastern countries (for example, 5-6% of pregnant women smoke the hookah in Lebanon) but this study also shows that hookah smoking among school-aged students is increasing in Western countries such as the United States and Estonia. In other Western Countries such as the United Kingdom it is also popular among university students. Most, but not all, of these young people smoking the hookah are of Middle Eastern origin. In the US students as young as 13 have been reported as regular users.

Simply telling students that smoking a hookah is harmful to their health is unlikely to get them to take the facts on board as they believe (wrongly) that the water filters the impurities. However a more powerful approach is to get them to understand why and include the dangers of hookah pipes when covering D.5.3 and D.10.3. In addition to nicotine there are estimated to be over 400 toxic substances in tobacco smoke of which about 60 are known to cause cancer. Students can see from the structure of nicotine (right) that it is essentially non-polar and will not therefore dissolve in water to any meaningful extent. Many of the other toxic substances are hydrocarbons or aromatic tars that are also non-polar. Even the poisonous gas carbon monoxide which is slightly polar only has a solubility in water of 0.026 g dm-3 at 20 oC so much of it will not be absorbed by the hookah water. Some users also go on to smoke marijuana mixed in with tobacco using a hookah pipe in the belief that it will not harm their health so the same arguments apply.

P.S. What did surprised me is that when I visited a restaurant in Kazakhstan one of the waiters had the job of lighting all the hookah pipes for the customers. This involved him breathing in clouds of smoke from the tobacco and coals directly before it passed through the water. After having done one he then moved on to the next one and kept this up for the whole evening. Health and Safety?


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Tech-savvy generation
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IT and workshops

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