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Researchers Link Hookah Smoke to Elevated Benzene Exposure

By Burg Simpson
May 15, 2015
3 min read

Researchers from San Diego State University found people who smoke hookah or are exposed to hookah smoke come into contact with higher levels of benzene, a known carcinogen.

A hookah is a water pipe that uses burning charcoal to heat water in order to smoke flavored tobacco. Smoking hookah is typically a communal event, and participants pass the mouthpiece from person to person. It is popular among adolescents, college students, and young adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the study authors stated 26.6 percent of male college students and 23.2 percent of female college students in the U.S. used hookah during their academic career, Medical News Today reported.

Many users hold the belief that smoking hookah is less harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes or cigars. However, recent studies, including the one by San Diego State University researchers, reveal the health dangers associated with tobacco.

Chemical, carcinogen exposure
The researchers analyzed the level of S-phenylmercapturic acid (SPMA) – a metabolite of benzene – in study participants’ urine. Benzene is a chemical that can be formed naturally and artificially, according to the CDC. It is a natural consequence of combustion, like in cigarette smoke or burning charcoal.

Benzene causes cells not to function properly and can damage people’s immune system by lowering white blood cell counts and interfering with antibody levels. High levels of benzene in the body can lead to poisoning, with warning signs such as drowsiness, irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors, and confusion. Significantly high levels of the chemical can lead to long-term health issues and death. Additionally, high levels of benzene have been linked to an increased risk of leukemia, according to the study authors.

Of the 105 hookah-smoking study participants, the researchers found their SPMA levels were 4.2 times higher the morning after attending a hookah event than in the morning before and 1.9 times higher the morning after smoking at home compared to the morning before, according to a statement from the American Association for Cancer Research. For the 103 nonsmoking participants who attended the hookah event, their SPMA levels were 2.6 times higher compared to before, but their levels remained steady if they went to a private home where hookah was smoked.

The researchers concluded there is no safe level of benzene exposure and that hookah is just as dangerous as any other form of tobacco use.

“In addition to inhaling toxicants and carcinogens found in the hookah tobacco smoke, hookah smokers and nonsmokers who socialize with hookah smokers also inhale large quantities of charcoal combustion-generated toxic and carcinogenic emissions,” Nada Kassem, associate director at the Center for Behavioral Epidemiology and Community Health at San Diego State University, said in a statement.

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