Every germ-conscious stoner has, at some time, waved a flame over the mouthpiece of a pipe — an impulsive attempt at incinerating any lingering bacteria — before pressing their damp lips against it and inhaling until smearing peanut butter on pizza sounds appealing. I share a small turtle-shaped pipe with my girlfriend, and since the coronavirus became a thing, our lighter has been spending a lot more time heating up the end of said pipe, and hopefully sending germs to their sizzling doom.
But the more weed I smoke, the more paranoid I become about my prized germ-busting tactic, and whether it really works. In search for clarity, I emailed microbiologist and “Germ Guy” Jason Tetro, and his thoughts were, well, disheartening.
For starters, I should note that weed pipes tend to act as hubs for germs and other nasties. One recent study found that pipes, vapes and joints all have “an astounding level of bacteria,” and “almost one and a half times more bacteria than a public toilet seat.” While horrifying, it makes sense that pipes are brimming with bacteria — weed itself can host tons of microorganisms, which thrive in stagnant bong water, a conglomeration of diverse spit and moistened resin.
It would be wise, then, to clean your pipe as well as possible, and flickering the mouthpiece with a flame has always seemed like a quick, viable way to do so. “The trick behind using a flame is based on the same principle we use in the lab: Heat kills,” says Tetro. The problem is, clinical tools, like Bunsen burners, and procedures for using a flame to sterilize are much different than me hurriedly flashing a lighter over my turtle pipe. “When we do this in the lab, we make sure that the item is either fully aflame, usually with an alcohol rinse, or that it glows red.”
And even if you manage to get the entire mouthpiece of your pipe, inside and outside, to glow red without the whole thing exploding into a million pieces, sending a volley of molten glass in every direction, you then need to wait quite a while for it to cool down enough to smoke from.
Put simply, Tetro asserts that it would be very, very unlikely for anyone to safely get their pipe hot enough to incinerate all lingering bacteria by merely waving a lighter over the mouthpiece. Even then, chances are, there will still be some germs hanging out somewhere else in your pipe that would eventually get sucked up by you, anyway. In fact, for these reasons, even in laboratory environments, heating objects at high temperatures over long periods of time is a much more preferable form of sterilization than using an actual flame directly on them.
In other words, my whole life has been a lie.
Fortunately, there are other ways to clean and disinfect a weed pipe — namely, soaking it in a strong solution of rubbing alcohol mixed with a tablespoon of coarse salt for a good 12 hours. Then, give it a thorough rinse, and let it dry. You can also poke around inside your pipe with a paperclip if things are super gunked up in there.
As for the old lighter trick, well, on the bright side, my girlfriend and I should end up saving a lot more lighter fluid now.