Valley Voices

Marijuana, technology create burn dangers

A marijuana ‘honey oil’ operation caused an explosion that destroyed this southeast Fresno home in January 2015.
A marijuana ‘honey oil’ operation caused an explosion that destroyed this southeast Fresno home in January 2015. The Fresno Bee file

What you don’t know can burn you.

As a burn surgeon, I am seeing some unusual types of injuries coming through the Valley’s only burn center: honey oil and lithium batteries – think e-cigarettes and cellphones.

Honey oil – also known as hash oil, budder, earwax or shatter – is the resinous material obtained by the solvent extraction of marijuana. The resulting viscous amber residue contains high concentrations of THC (up to 90 percent).

It can be smoked, ingested in food or vaporized (as in e-cigarettes). Since it is highly concentrated, it is easily transportable and highly potent, and its manufacturing has become a popular enterprise in areas where marijuana is legal and in places where it is not.

The fire and burn danger from honey oil concerns one of the popular modes of its manufacturing. As mentioned, the oil is extracted using an organic solvent that dissolves the THC, separating it from the solid plant material, and then boils or is boiled away.

Butane, widely available as a fuel for such things as camp stoves and cigarette lighters, is particularly efficient as the extracting solvent.

It is highly volatile with a boiling point of zero degrees Celsius, so it quickly vaporizes after being poured through a mass of marijuana plant material, usually packed into an open piece of metal pipe. It vaporizes, but it doesn’t dissipate. Butane is twice as dense as air and highly flammable.

It tends to settle close to the floor of the space where the honey oil is being extracted. Any ignition source – a lit match, pilot light, spark from a static electrical discharge – can ignite it explosively with truly disastrous results.

These explosions have caused major structure fires, knocked buildings off their foundations and inflicted serious, often life-threatening burns on the manufacturers and sometimes on uninvolved bystanders.

In the past few years, our burn center has treated more than two dozen such patients. The total at the UC Davis burn center, whose catchment includes Humboldt County, is approaching 100.

Prevention in this case is not easy. A simple “don’t try this at home” type of warning will probably not dissuade many amateur chemists from trying their hands at the honey oil trade.

However, knowing the consequences of a mistake might cause some people to investigate other enterprises or at least change their practice, working in a well-ventilated space or in the open air and choosing less volatile solvents, for example.

Additionally, restricting the availability of butane might help, just as limiting the access to over-the-counter medications containing pseudoephedrine reduced the number of smaller methamphetamine labs.

Another issue that has become newsworthy of late concerns the safety of lithium-ion batteries. Since their introduction in the mid-2000s, these rechargeable power sources have become fairly ubiquitous.

They are efficient, compact, hold a charge well and have fairly long useful lives, and thus are commonly found in many products, including many personal electronic items. From smartphones to laptops to e-cigarettes, they have become part of the technological background noise.

The problem is that given the proper conditions and circumstances – short circuits, overcharging, mechanical damage, overheating – they can ignite or explode, leading to a variety of injuries. Lithium is an unstable, highly combustible element, and depending on how it’s compounded, may not need atmospheric oxygen in order to burn vigorously.

Extinguishing a lithium-ion battery fire is quite problematic. Throwing water on the fire will very likely make things worse since H2O’s reaction with lithium liberates highly flammable hydrogen gas. Trying to smother it with a blanket or other similar object may also be ineffective since the compound itself or the surrounding materials may supply the oxidizers necessary to keep the fire going.

A class D fire extinguisher containing powdered copper is the recommended device for suppressing a lithium-related fire. The copper reacts with lithium to form a nonflammable alloy that coats the unalloyed lithium, preventing oxygen from reaching it.

In the past two years, our burn center has treated a half-dozen patients burned by the lithium batteries in e-cigarettes when those devices ignited in their pockets or hands.

Although we designate certain periods for heightened awareness, it should always be burn- and fire-prevention season. Education, situational awareness and common sense all play a role in prevention as all of us in the field of burn care continue to make every effort to put ourselves out of a job.

William Dominic, M.D., is the medical director of Community Regional Medical Center’s Leon S. Peters Burn Center – the Valley’s only comprehensive burn center.