More than five trillion cigarettes are made every year and campaigner say they represent a significant problem. They’re not talking about the health aspect, but the environmental side, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world, claim experts.
And while much attention has been focused on plastic pollution in the world’s waters, cigarette filters have been the most collected item on the world’s beaches for the last 30 years: some 60 million have been picked up in that time.
CGTN’s Phil Lavelle reports.
For Thomas Novotny, a public health expert and anti-smoking campaigner, the time has come to take a radical step.
He wants cigarette filters banned altogether,“It’s a chronic, long-term pollutant in the environment”, he tells CGTN, adding, “If we can get filters out of the environment, it’s very likely that will improve the environment but also discourage people from smoking. It will make it less comfortable to smoke, it will help demystify this notion of the filter being a health benefit.”
The reason is that cigarette butts contain a cocktail of chemicals. Many smokers think they’re made of paper, and they do have a paper shell to help stop them sticking to smokers’ mouths. But inside, they contain a substance called plastic acetate. It’s a persistent plastic chemical that can take up to 10 years to decompose.
To show us the effects of those chemicals, Novotny shows us a substance called leachate that they’ve made at a lab in San Diego. It works like a teabag would, with water added to cigarette filters and then left to stew, so that the chemical contents leak into the liquid.
It looks horrible, but that’s not the worst of it. He shows us what happens when freshwater fish are dropped into the water, within seconds, they’re convulsing and vomiting as their bodies are overrun with the chemicals some humans have willingly taken into their own bodies.
“It tells us potentially what we can experience as chemical toxicity”, he adds.
At San Diego State University they took a close look at what happens with those chemicals when they’re in the water. Scientist, Dr Eunha Hoh examined fish and mussels that had been exposed to the leachate.
She explains “Nicotine was also found in the fish tissues.” This is because many cigarettes are discarded with some tobacco still inside them, just another chemical that can leak into the water.
“Of course, I expected to find a lot of chemicals in the leachate, nicotine, all the tobacco alkaloids, but the fish and mussels were able to uptake those chemicals and were actually able to find them in the fish and mussels. They don’t go away – some of the chemicals are actually quite persistent. And they move and transfer from the water to the organisms.”
The worry here is what happens when this toxic mess is ingested by humans. The billions of people who eat fish that have been swimming in the world’s oceans. Hoh is cautious, because more research is needed here.
“We don’t actually know what happens to us. That’s another question. Humans are exposed to so many chemicals. But we never thought about cigarette disposal coming back to us. We may take up those chemicals by somebody disposing the butts into the ground, ocean or river.”