What do you pack in your stem?

Help service users choose a better-quality and safer product to smoke drugs

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You may be aware that using steel wool products in a straight stem is unsafe, but your service users may not be aware of the risks. This one-stop source is here to support you as you engage with 'your' community about safer inhalation practices. Here, you'll get the information you need to 'share' with others about research, educational resources, and videos.

Understand the Research

Despite the availability of brass screens in harm reduction programs across Ontario, use of steel wool products remains common. In an effort to help you encourage safer smoking practices, OHRDP worked in collaboration with Queen’s University and harm reduction workers to determine how brass screens and steel wools behave when compressed and heated.

Watch the Webinar where Dr. Bradley Diak breaks down the findings, and harm reduction workers provide tangible ways this information can be shared with service-users in your community.

Want to know the nitty gritty? Read our research article from the BMC Harm Reduction Journal.

Research Overview

The in-depth research covers how brass screens and steel wools behave when compressed and heated, and outlines what you need to know as you work with community members who use steel wool to smoke drugs.

Educational Resources

We know how helpful it can to be to have resources which help you when you are talking with service users. To support you we’ve created a collection of information sheets which explain the research around brass screens and steel wool products.

Brass Screen Impact 1.0 (Blue) and Impact 2.0 (Orange)
Stainless Steel Kitchen Scrubby
Steel Wool Pads with Soap
Brass Screen Impact 1.0 (Blue) and Impact 2.0 (Orange)
Stainless Steel Kitchen Scrubby
Steel Wool Pads with Soap

Conversation Starters

Service users may have their own ideas about brass screens and it can be tough knowing how to respond in an effective way. These conversation starters cover the basics, to help you share education, and engage others. 

What Do You Pack In Your Stem?

What are the characteristics you want in a high-quality product? This 11×17 inch poster is available in English and French and reviews how to choose a better-quality and safer product when smoking drugs.

Download the Poster

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Video Tutorials

Want to know different ways of packing a straight stem?  These quick, how-to videos provide you with three different packing methods used by individuals in different regions of the province. 

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Packing Method

This video shows you three ways to prepare and pack brass screens in a straight stem. Before you watch, it’s good to know there is no “right” way to pack. It comes down to personal preference.

Materials Needed

This video outlines the necessary brass screen folding supplies for a straight stem, including BZK wipes, alcohol swabs, brass screens, push sticks and personal mouthpieces. 

Play Video
  • A brass screen is shaped by hands and placed at one end of the straight stem to keep the drug in place.
  • Push sticks are used to pack and position the filter or screen inside the stem.
  • When heating the Pyrex stem, drug melts and releases vapours. The brass screens permit the inhalation of drug vapour while minimizing the inhalation of chemical residues, fragments, burning metal debris, and smoldering drug particles.

Brass screens provided through harm reduction programs are safer for use as screens for smoking drugs than other commercially available steel wool products. 

When compared to steel wool alternatives, brass screens:

  • Are high heat resistant and pliable
  • Have no chemical coating
  • Remain stable and are unlikely to disintegrate when being handled and heated. Stability refers to the ability of the material not to change composition during heating or chemical reaction with the vapour.
  • Are more likely to retain less drug inside the screen providing more drug for consumption (‘stronger hit’)
  • Are less likely to cause damage to Pyrex straight stems

Common reason that people who smoke drugs identified as reason for using steel wools instead of brass screens:

  • Personal preference
  • Long lasting habit of using steel wools
  • Inexpensive and widely available in convenience stores and supermarkets
  • Belief that brass screens retain more drug and lead to loss of the drug
  • Easier to handle and faster to insert into the stem than brass screens
  • Don’t like the ‘feel’ of brass screens
  • Not having enough information about brass screens and their benefits
  • Not being aware of health risks associated with the use of steel wools
  • Lack of or limited access to brass screens
  • Steel wool products may break apart into fragments. These fragments could be inhaled and cause injuries to the lips, oral cavity, throat and lungs. Cuts and sores could provide an entry point for bacteria and viruses.
  • Smoldering drug particles can pass through steel wool. It can cause burns and cuts to the lips, mouth, throat, lungs and along the tract to the stomach.
  • People who smoke drugs commonly report the following issues: inhaling the whole Brillo® screen, developing cuts on fingers when handling Brillo®  and breathing difficulties.
  • Some commercial steel wool products are coated with substances, such as soap and cleaning products that could be inhaled when the product is heated.
  • Harmful substances like toxic volatile organic carbons release when steel wool is burned, could be inhaled.
  • Brass screens do not significantly change after manipulation and heating typical in preparation for drug consumption.
  • The steel wools break into smaller wire segments during pressing into the stem, while the brass screen materials remain mostly intact after the deformation.
  • The wool steel wires show significant structural changes like oxidation, melting and breaking into smaller segments after manipulation and heating typical in preparation for drug consumption.
  • Free and brittle wire ends, created when heating steel wool,  are loose and easily separated from the general filter wad. These loose wire ends can be inhaled during drug consumption.
  • Loose wire ends in steel wools can rapidly heat up, melt and burn leading to inhalation of hot wire particles. These can create burns and cuts on the mouth, throat, lungs and along the tract to the stomach.
  • Folding and pushing Brass Screens, Impact 1.0 (blue) screens into the stem using a 4-stack method is easier and faster than trying to fold a stack of screens and push them down a tube using a 4-fold method.
  • Stiff wires in steel wools can more easily scratch and damage the straight stems than brass screens. Damaged stems are easier to break.
  • Wire debris that is created during cutting a steel wool becomes part of the screen material and can be inhaled.
  • Based on the findings of this study, brass screens are not only considered a safer alternative to steel wools but are likely to retain less drugs on its surface, minimizing the loss of drug when smoking.