Bong Science 101: What Are They And How Do They Work?

Bong on the beach at sunset

What is a bong?

Also called a water pipe, a bong is a smoking device comprised of five parts: the bowl, the carb (not all bongs have this), the downstem, the base, and the tube. The bowl is the attachment meant to hold the cannabis flower. The carburetor, carb for short, is a small hole that allows the consumer to more easily inhale smoke from the chamber. The downstem is a tube through which the smoke travels from the bowl to the water located in the base of the bong. The base is the bong’s bottom.  It holds the water. Finally, the tube is the smoke chamber. It ends as the mouthpiece from which consumers inhale the smoke.

Bongs have existed for thousands of years and can even be traced back to China’s Ming Dynasty. This extensive history has resulted in the production of numerous different types of bongs.  In fact, there are many bong aficionados who spent lots of money collecting the most expensive, intricately designed glass pieces. There are even some non-functional glass pieces constructed solely for their aesthetics. 

The Great Debate: Is Bong Smoke Better for You?

bowl filled with cannabis One of the benefits of cannabis’ entry into the mainstream is an elevated interest in the health and safety of typical consumption methods. When it comes to bong smoking, there is a common belief that the water contained in the bong’s base has both a cooling and filtering effect.

Why would you want to filter cannabis smoke?  In addition to cannabinoids and terpenes, combusted cannabis transmits a whole lot of nasty particles like ash and harmful toxins in its smoke. The umbrella term for these toxins is tar, and it’s made up of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that just aren’t meant to be in your lungs. PAH’s have been implicated in the development of cancers, cardiovascular disease, and prenatal developmental issues.

It is not the cannabis itself that is responsible for the creation of these harmful substances. It is the combustion of the flower.  This is why the healthiest ways of consuming weed are by ingesting or vaporizing it. Absorbing cannabis through the digestive system comes with calories, not smoke fumes.  Vaporizing weed creates a vapor by bringing flower to a heat that does not result in combustion, consequently avoiding the inhalation of PAHs. 

However, if smoking is the route you want to take, you may have heard that using a bong makes the experience just a little safer.

What the Experts Say

According to the most well-versed in cannabis paraphernalia, the quality of a smoke depends on the bong and on the cannabis.  Most importantly, it depends on whether the water in the bong is an effective filter or not. Kenji Hobbs, manager at Unkle Ike’s Pot Shop in Seattle, explained that water may not be the best filter when it comes to preserving potency. 

A.J Fabrizio, director of research for the medical cannabis research company Terra Tech, presents a counter-argument. “Those who are familiar with and work in cannabis extractions know that water, as a polar solvent, doesn’t do a good job of dissolving cannabinoids, terpenes, or waxes,” he said. “Are you losing cannabinoids or terpenes as the gas passes through water? Yes, but it’s negligible.  The water will preferentially filter particulate matter and potentially solvate polar molecules, over the cannabinoids and terpenes, which have virtually zero water solubility.”

Water isn’t just a taker. Though it does seem to filter substances out of the smoke, it can give back as well. “If you’ve inhaled through dirty bong water, you know what happens. It tastes like dirty disgusting resin,” Fabrizio explained. “This is why people talk about cleaning your bong—and it’s also important with dabbing too. You need to make sure that chamber and that water is pretty clean if you want to ensure an unadulterated flavor.”

Some people may want to use alcohol to clean out the chamber, or for an added effect. But Fabrizio cautions against that practice. “Not advised or safe,” he said. “Huffing alcohol fumes is toxic.” 

What the Studies Show

It turns out that, like most cannabis-related concepts, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of research on the effectiveness of bongs.  Remember, as long as cannabis remains federally illegal, this will be the first part of the answer for every question about the plant because it’s hard to research a substance that the Federal Government has designated as contraband. Even so, there are some studies out there that give us limited insight into bong science. 

One 1996 study made the conclusion that bongs did not protect smokers from harmful tars.  Instead, the MAPS and NORML sponsored study found that the water pipes were more effective at removing THC than the tars. The consequence is that smokers consumed a larger quantity of weed to compensate for the lost potency, thereby exposing themselves to more tar. The study recommended that users consume high potency cannabis to avoid needing to smoke a large amount or choose an alternate consumption method such as vaporization or oral ingestion to avoid dangerous toxins. 

A 1995 literature review made a different conclusion.  That review found that studies investigating the filtration efficacy of water pipes showed that bongs could effectively remove toxins from cannabis smoke while preserving most of the cannabinoid content. The study explained that the most effective bongs for filtration are designed with gas dispersion frits that break the smoke up into small bubbles.

Bong Science 101: What Are They And How Do They Work? was last modified: by
Dianna Benjamin
About Dianna Benjamin
Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.