This article originally appeared on VICE India
Even as cigarette packets flash phrases that warn “Smoking kills” or “Cigarettes cause cancer”, it turns out that stubbed cigarette butts discarded in ashtrays are just as bad for our bodies. Not only do these stubs litter the environment with toxic micro-plastics, but according to a new study, extinguished cigarettes emit toxic amounts of nicotine into the air. This not only means cigarettes are terrible for the planet, but also that their fumes can cause damage even for non-smokers.
Even as we acknowledge that passive smoking is also harmful, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US found that every cigarette butt gives out almost 15 percent of the nicotine that a burning cigarette gives off. "I was absolutely surprised," said researcher Dustin Poppendieck. "The numbers are significant and could have important impacts when butts are disposed of indoors or in cars." The NIST measurements were performed under an agreement with the Food and Drug Administration to analyse the overall impact of cigarette smoking on people's lives.
What’s scarier is that scientists found these fumes could continue for almost a week after the cigarette is sent to the ashtray. “This means if you don't empty an ashtray in your home for a week, the amount of nicotine exposure to non smokers could be double current estimates,” Poppendieck said. This type of third-hand exposure can also increase the risk of cancers and cause numerous other health complications, especially in the growing bodies and brains of infants and children.
To conduct this research, they not only examined eight of the countless chemicals emitted by cigarettes, but also measured triacetin, a plasticiser often used to make filters stiff. Filters became a cigarette feature only in the 1950s to collect part of what comes off a burning cigarette. But even then, they don't fully cancel out the exposure from inhaling tobacco smoke. Instead, they provide a kind of handle for cigarette users who want to avoid burning their lips or fingers, wasting tobacco, or having to pick out stray tobacco from their tongues. Triacetin can make up as much as 10 percent of a filter, and it has low volatility, which means it doesn't evaporate efficiently at normal temperatures. This also brought researchers to the conclusion that cigarette stubs are more harmful in warmer weather.
To carry out this study, researchers used a “smoking machine”, a device that uses robotic movements to simulate the smoking experience and tested out over 2,000 cigarettes to arrive at this inference. To combat this, the team suggests that instead of stubbing your cigarette out on the open road, you should do so in a sealable metal or glass jar filled with sand so as to reduce the risk.
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