“Is a bong a safe way of smoking cannabis? Does the water really filter out some of the tar and other stuff from the smoke? If it doesn’t, why does the bong water get so dirty?”
A ‘bong’, also known as a water pipe, is a smoking device, generally used to smoke cannabis, tobacco, as well as a range of other substances. In recent times bongs have become increasingly popular amongst young people, mainly due to the ease to which they can be used. Unlike a ‘joint’ (a cannabis cigarette), there’s little preparation needed and some teens appear to enjoy the ritual of ‘packing a cone’ and passing it around a group of friends. The device also allows a much larger amount of smoke to be inhaled quickly as opposed to smaller, more frequent, inhalations of the smoke produced in other ways.
To use a bong, the base of the pipe is usually filled with water. The cannabis (or cannabis mixture, usually mixed with tobacco, often referred to as ‘mulling up’) is packed into a ‘cone’ on the side of the bong and then lit. The mouth is put over the mouthpiece and the person inhales, causing the smoke produced by heating the cannabis to travel through the pipe to the water chamber. Smoke rises through the water, is cooled down and is then trapped in the air chamber above the water. The person is then able to inhale the cooler smoke.
The main reason that many believe the bong to be a ‘safer’ way of smoking cannabis is due to the water contained in the device. Friends have told them that this process removes the tar and other carcinogenic material from the smoke, thus reducing some of the risks associated with smoking. The colour of the ‘bong water’ appears to support this belief. It’s often a dirty colour as you’ve described but this is actually due to it being full of smoke impurities and, in fact, the water removes little, if any, tar or other harmful material. Interestingly, studies have found that bongs actually filter out more THC (the compound that gets you ‘stoned’) than they do tars, meaning you have to smoke more to get the desired effect!
It’s also extremely important to note that using homemade bongs (whether they be from plastic juice bottles or soft drink cans) can cause even greater problems due to the plastic or aluminum giving off toxic fumes when heated.
There’s no safe way of using cannabis – like any drug, there are a range of potential negative consequences if you choose to use it. If you’re going to smoke the drug it’s important to remember that no matter what the substance is, smoking is a dangerous route of administration. At the very least, using a bong forces the cannabis smoke deeper into the lungs. This exposes more of the lungs to tar and other harmful toxins without necessarily increasing the perceived positive effects, i.e., getting you more stoned. Contrary to what many people believe, a person does not necessarily get more of an effect from a bong.
So, in answer to your questions – a bong is not a safe way of using cannabis. The water in the device doesn’t remove all of the tar and other dangerous materials and it becomes dirty mainly due to smoke particles and other impurities.
First published: August 2015
Reviewed and updated: October 2023