Let’s face it: we touch a lot of dirty things every day. 

Dirty items inside the home include bathroom hand towels and dog toys. Outside of the house, everything from shopping carts to ATMs can expose us to high concentrations of germs. And that doesn’t even cover everyday items like cell phones, cash, and computer keyboards—all of which have high germ exposure potential. 

The same can be said for items that go in our mouths, like fingernails and pens. Sharing drinks, toothbrushes, and food can also spell out germ city. 

And that bizarre five-second rule? Forget about it. 

Germs are everywhere. They’re unavoidable, but don’t freak out; they’re a totally normal part of living and your immune system will protect you from most of them. However, there’s a pressing germ concern unique to the cannabis community: group consumption of pipes and joints. 

A recent study conducted by Los Angeles-based Moose Labs found that cannabis pipes, vapes, and joints all have “an astounding level of bacteria.” It went on to state that it was difficult to find a neutral everyday item that matched its levels of bacteria. The analysis produced significantly higher-than-expected results. In all, the average cannabis pipe was found to have “almost one and a half times more bacteria than a public toilet seat.” 

The report concluded that each person should use a mouthpiece when consuming. The findings support using a product like a disposable or washable mouthpiece with a filter, like one that Moose Labs offers. This is a point the company’s co-founder Jay Rush said the study sought out to prove.

“It really is just absolutely horrifying,” Rush said about the findings. “I almost feel bad telling people, but would you rather be informed and upset or uninformed and blissfully ignorant?” 

Other experts in the field told High Times they recommended carrying a product like alcohol wipes when smoking a bong or pipe with a large group of people. 

Christopher Carrubba, MD explained why cannabis consumption devices can become so contaminated. He cited biofilm formation as the cause. “Marijuana itself can be a host to numerous bacterial and fungal organisms and contaminated bong water can similarly serve as a host for bacteria, candida, and other types of fungi,” he said.

“As these organisms grow, they secrete substances that allow them to cling to certain physical objects such as plastic or glass within a bong. The accumulation of these secretions leads to the formation of a biofilm that serves to protect these organisms and to facilitate their ongoing proliferation.” 

Dr. Carrubba went on to note that biofilms are resistant to standard cleaning solutions and antimicrobial agents: “Once a biofilm forms, bacterial and fungal contaminants may persist even after a basic washing of the bong.” 

He added that some of the more common microbial organisms and their potential risks include:

  • Aspergillosis — When burned, the fungal organism aspergillosis releases mycotoxins that can gather in bong water and be inhaled later on. This can potentially cause a cough or chest pain and can lead to pulmonary disease. 
  • Pseudomonas — This bacterial organism can cause acute pneumonia and sepsis. It is difficult to treat, often requiring antimicrobial therapy for long periods. 
  • Flavobacterium — This bacteria is found in sources of stagnant water like an unclean bong. An infection can lead to pulmonary symptoms and diarrhea. 
  • Streptococcus species — A common bacteria usually found on the skin and in the oral and respiratory tract. It is responsible for infections such as strep throat, pneumonia, ear infections and other unpleasant medical results. 
  • E. coli — E. coli can also be found in the cannabis plant, as well as human and animal feces. Exposure to E. coli can turn into symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. 

The Moose Labs study focuses on cannabis pipes, as the company did not receive enough materials to analyze joints and vaporizers as closely as the pipes. 

However, Rush noted that the unnamed joints and vaporizer provided in the test are products he uses personally. “I consider myself a relatively clean person,” Rush said. “And they both read significantly higher than anything else that we have tested for.” 

The results from Moose Labs found that both joints and vaporizers had close to four times more bacteria than a toilet seat.

The concerning data shows that cannabis consumption, especially in group settings, can create adverse effects. While drastic, Rush noted that global issues, such as the SARS virus, can go from one person to thousands across the world relatively quickly. If an infected person consumed cannabis in a group setting, the consequences could be dire.  

“Imagine if someone goes to one of these events where they have one of these viruses and a hundred other people put their mouth directly on [a pipe] and go out into the world. You’d have an epidemic like never before,” Rush explained.

Causing the next global health scare isn’t a likely outcome, but other uncomfortable conditions from sore throats to diarrhea are possible. While it may not always be the trendiest thing to do, carrying a mouthpiece or sanitary wipes will keep pieces cleaner. Using a few could help yourself and those around you. 

Those looking to protect themselves further may want to consider Dr. Carrubaa’s advice that includes cleaning the bong with boiling water after each use. Other measures include properly drying the bong after washing, a weekly cleaning with rubbing alcohol, and cleaning your hands before using your piece.

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