Why the Dangers of Cigarette Butts Could be Worse than You Think

A few days ago a friend posted a status on Facebook declaring how she was shocked to find out that cigarettes weren’t biodegradable. I was slightly shocked myself as I thought that, especially as an ex-smoker myself , that everyone knew the dangers of cigarette butts on the environment – not just the fact that they aren’t biodegradable, but in terms of the damage the chemicals they contain can cause. But when I saw the number of responses from people who had spent many years believing cigarette butts were biodegradable, it got me wondering; how is this not a bigger deal? We try and convince people to stop smoking by talking again and again about the unhealthy effects it has on the body, but how often do we talk about the unhealthy effects on the environment?

As mentioned, cigarette butts aren’t biodegradable. They will eventually decompose, but in the majority of cigarettes the filters are made with a substance called cellulose acetate which, depending on the conditions, can take between 18 months and 10 years to decompose. The scale of the problem is by no means a small one with various research reports offering  some quite shocking statistics; 4 trillion cigarette butts are being ‘chucked’ each year, or 1.6 billion pounds of butts, with 25-30% of all litter picked up off the street among some of the most disconcerting. With issues concerning environmental protection and sustainability being given more focus over the past few years, many tobacco companies have started producing biodegradable filters to help limit the damage done to the environment. Using materials such as hemp and cotton these decompose at a much quicker rate. Whilst this could be seen as a positive step many tobacco companies have come under fire from campaigners for simply ignoring any responsibility they may have to tackle the issues caused by the filters and butts they use and sell, and instead pushing the onus on consumers to do the right thing. Either way, playing the blame game isn’t going to do anything to help the environment.

Even biodegradable cigarette butts carelessly thrown away can still pose a choking hazard to smaller animals that might mistake them for food or accidentally ingest them whilst foraging. The effects of swallowing a cigarette butt can have on wildlife and household pets include vomiting, respiratory failure and sometimes even death. However,  the bulk of the damage done to the environment through discarded cigarette butts is not the butts themselves however, but rather the chemicals in them – chemicals which will still be present even in biodegradable filters.

It is the leaching of these chemicals that is believed to cause the most environmental damage. Smoking is known to be one of the biggest causes of preventable deaths around the world which is unsurprising when you think of what they contain. In fact over 4000 chemicals could potentially be released into the environment thanks to smoking such as formaldehyde, argon, phenol and aceton, all of which are carcinogenic.

An experiment run by a team of researchers at America’s San Diego State University’s Graduate School of Public Health, led by Eli Slaughter, aimed to discover the extent of the damage cigarette butts left in water can cause to fish. They were looking specifically for LC50, a concentration of cigarette butt leachate in the water that can be so lethal it could kill up to 50% of the fish population. Using samples of filters that had been smoked and still had tobacco attached to them, filters that had been smoked but with no tobacco left attached to them, and unsmoked filters, they separated them into different containers to soak in water in different quantities. These were then removed after a period of time and fish placed in the containers to see what their reaction would be. This research discovered that the smoked filters that still contained traces of tobacco on them were undoubtedly the most toxic, with just 1.1 cigarette butt per litre of water proving to be fatal to 50% of the fish population. Smoked filters with no tobacco were close behind with 1.8 per litre of water achieving the same deadly results. Surprisingly even the unsmoked filters were found to wipe out half of the fish population at 5.1 per litre of water, showing that even those that have never been smoked are full of enough chemicals to pose a serious threat. Of course there are other potential influencers that need to be considered when evaluating this research and its impact; cigarette butts found in oceans and rivers will most likely be a lot more diluted than those which have been left in containers, and the researchers used only two types of fish in their experiments meaning that there may be other aquatic wildlife that display stronger or weaker reactions to the butt to water ratio. Whilst a study by the Royal Australian Society Chemical Institute back in 2002 concluded that cigarette butts pose a “low to moderate risk to aquatic organisms” it has been refuted that this doesn’t take into consideration the ‘bioaccumulation’ factor; in other words, the harm caused when fish eat other fish who have ingested these chemicals. In fact these toxins can become more concentrated as they move up the food chain.

Whilst the number of smokers falls year on year this is still a huge issue which needs addressing. Many anti-smoking groups are highlighting the damage cigarettes cause to the environment but initiatives such as banning smoking in public gardens and parks, encouraging the use of portable ashtrays and an increased number of cigarette deposit bins in city centers seems to be having very little effect in light of the potentially horrific effects on the environment. The tobacco companies may not be willing to take responsibility and so it is up to us smokers to take the initiative, show some compassion and throw our butts in the nearest bin rather than the nearest roadside – or maybe even use this as the inspiration to ditch the cigarettes once and for all.

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Jessica Howard

Jessica Howard

31 years old, currently living and working in London, UK.

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