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A Beginner’s Guide to Steam Stones: What are they and how do they work?

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If you’ve been following the ever-expanding synthetic smoking market, you’ve probably heard of steam stones – the vaporized pebbles often advertised as a safe tobacco alternative that can be inhaled through a hookah pipe.

For hookah-enthusiasts, the concept is exciting. According to the FDA, the average user inhales 100-200 times the smoke they would from a cigarette in one hookah sesh. This is because cigarettes are generally smoked quickly, while smoking a hookah is a process that can last hours. Long story short, a healthier alternative to hookah tobacco would be AWESOME.

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But there isn’t a lot of research on these trendy stones, and the FDA has yet to regulate them. A quick google search on the products pulls up a smorgasbord of contradicting stories on the product, from worrisome evidence indicating they may be more dangerous than traditional hookah tobacco to competing reports on whether you can smoke cannabis with steam stones, leaving even hookah gurus wondering what exactly these stones are and how they actually work.

To get you in the loop (and help you avoid some embarrassment in front of your steam stoner friends,) we dug through the research and weeded out the misconceptions for you. Here, you’ll find your biggest questions on steam stones, answered.

What are steam stones?

Steam stones are porous minerals in the shape of tiny rocks that are injected with or marinated in honey or glycerin and some form of flavoring (like chocolate, mint, or strawberry), making their vapor sweet to taste. They can easily be ordered online on Amazon and through other sellers. The vast majority of steam stones do not contain nicotine, but there are exceptions, so be sure to verify what’s in your stones before purchasing if you are intentionally using them as a tobacco alternative.

How do steam stones work?

When heated in a hookah bowl, the liquid either inside or surrounding the steam stones comes to a boil and creates vapor that can be inhaled (not unlike what happens when you vape.) As previously mentioned, the idea with steam stones is not to get a nicotine buzz (since almost no steam stones contain nicotine), but to simply enjoy the sweet flavor of the vapor inhaled.

Can you get CBD or cannabis steam stones?

Yes! Cannabis steam stones exist, but probably not in the way you’re thinking. Cannabis, like blueberry and mint, is a popular steam stone flavor. So, while cannabis steam stones will emit a vapor that tastes like your favorite herb, they won’t get you high or have the effect on your pain levels, anxiety, etc., that real marijuana or CBD would.

Here’s some good news, though: You don’t need stones to get stoned using a hookah. Just grind up dry flower and put it in a hookah bowl. Then, smoke it the way you would shisha or tobacco.

RELATED: Dabs or Flower: Which is Healthier?

Are steam stones safe?

When we say there’s little to no research on steam stones, we mean it. But, in the most recent study checking the safety of steam stones, the consensus among researchers was that they are safer than hookah tobacco, as long as you smoke them correctly. If you don’t, you may be poisoning your body with some seriously harmful toxins.

Conducted at the University of Cincinnati in 2015, the study examined the metal components of the vapors released from nicotine-free steam stones. What they found, with astonishing consistency, was toxic amounts of arsenic, niobium, and other elements that can impair kidney, lung, and even neurological function.

However, much like vapes and e-cigarettes, the danger lies less in the stones than in process of heating them. The study authors noted that, after comparing the metals contained in the vapor from stones heated with charcoal (i.e. coals ignited to create the heat necessary for the stones to vaporize) and those heated with an e-charcoal (i.e. a ceramic disk that uses electricity to heat the stones), the vapor from stones heated with the e-charcoal contained significantly fewer toxins than the vapor emitted from the stones heated with standard charcoal. One study writer, Amberlie Clutterbuck, told Inside Science that this means steam stones heated with e-charcoals may, in fact, be healthier than tobacco, saying, “It’s the charcoal that’s the real problem.”

But this isn’t to say that steam stones are good for your health. In the same study, researchers used hot water to extract metals from the rocks. A small amount of arsenic was found in the water after the procedure, indicating that, for reasons still unknown, the toxic element was in the stones themselves.

We reached out to Felix Gabler, Co-founder of SHISH Germany, which produces Shiazo, a common steam stone brand tested in the 2015 study. While SHISH Germany is not concerned about the small amount of metals found in the stones, Gabler said they do encourage their customers to use an electric charcoal with Shiazo.

“As the stones are not eaten, the toxic metals found in the stones themselves are not relevant. Only trace levels have been found, which are not harmful to the human body even if the stones were consumed,” Gabler said. “The study clearly shows that the toxic metals which users are exposed to originate from the charcoal and not from the steam stones. The harmfulness of charcoal has been known for a long time. Thus, we recommend our customers, since the release of Shiazo in 2010, use steam stones with an electric charcoal and make sure their hookah is made from high quality materials.”

Bottom line: Whenever you consume a product not regulated by the FDA, you’re taking a risk. According to Dr. Leigh Vinocur, a practicing physician and member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians who has studied lung damage associated with vaping, more research has to be conducted before steam stones can truly be considered a healthier than tobacco.

“Until steam stones are regulated and analyzed more thoroughly for dangerous toxins, heavy metals, bacteria and molds in processing or the final product, there is really no way to tell how safe it is to inhale,” Vinocur told GreenState. “As we saw with the EVALI epidemic believed to be caused by vitamin E acetate in vape pens and e-cigarettes, even FDA approved additives can be OK to eat, but deadly when inhaled.”

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Elissa Esher is Assistant Editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to elli.esher@hearst.com.