Cigarettes aren't just toxic when smoked. A new study found that even when the butts are crumpled and cold they continue to release harmful compounds into the air.
In the first 24 hours alone, scientists found that an unlit cigarette butt produces
14% of the nicotine of an actively smoked cigarette. And the emissions into the air don't stop there.
While most of these chemicals are released within a day of shutdown, an analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that concentrations of nicotine and triacetin (a plasticizer found in cigarette filters) have decreased. only 50% in the following five days.
"I was absolutely surprised", says the environmental engineer Dustin Poppendieck of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
"The numbers are significant and could have a major impact when cigarette butts are thrown indoors or in cars."
Smoking studies have always placed a lot of attention on the impact of second-hand and now third-hand smoke (where chemical residues remain on the walls and furniture), but the real point of the matter has been ignored.
Toxic emissions of the unlit cigarette, laboratory tests
To measure the air emissions of this forgotten residue, Poppendieck and his team placed 2.100 recently-extinguished cigarettes in a stainless steel chamber.
No, they didn't smoke them: the team built a six-puff cigarette machine, mimicking human behavior.
Once the ends of the unlit cigarette were sealed, the team measured eight chemicals commonly emitted by cigarettes, four of which are under observation for potential carcinogenicity.
Triacetin is not one of the dangerous ones, but since it is so common in cigarette filters and does not evaporate easily, it is a good indicator of how other sticky chemicals are behaving.
By tinkering with the room's temperature, humidity, and saturation, the authors tested how emissions change under certain conditions.
When the room's air temperature was higher, for example, unlit cigarette butts emitted these chemicals at higher rates.
In other words, leaving ashtrays outside for many days, especially in the heat, is a bad idea and can expose smokers and not to even more harmful chemicals than we thought.
The conclusions of the study
We must revise upwards the toxicity of cigarettes (already hyper toxic). The total nicotine mass emitted by a cigarette in five days is much higher than we thought, especially in hot environments.
Today it is estimated that over 5 trillion cigarette butts are produced worldwide every year and many of these do not go out completely or are not thrown away properly, also causing soil pollution, because they are not biodegradable.
In summary? You may think that by never smoking in the car when children are present, you are protecting non-smokers or children around you. But if the ashtray in your car is full of butts, the toxic exposure continues, and continues, and continues. And it is not enough to be in the sun to reduce its effect.
The results of the study need to be deepened, because they involved only one brand (leader) of cigarettes and there are few other studies for comparison. However, if the numbers are accurate, we have overlooked a large factor in cigarette smoking.