Senthil takes a long puff of the cigarette before flicking it on the road nonchalantly. “I started smoking on the sly when I was in school,” he reminisces. “Sixty years later, I still do the same, only more smokes per day.”
Cigarette consumption is on the rise. Globally, about 5.8 trillion (that’s 5,800,000,000,000) cigarettes were smoked in the year 2014 alone. And of the more than 1 billion worldwide smokers, nearly 80 percent of them live in low and middle-income countries. India itself is home to 12 percent of the world’s smokers and was in the top 10 countries list for cigarette consumption in the year 2014.
Tobacco smoking is among the largest preventable causes of premature deaths globally and around six million people die each year due to tobacco, either as a result of direct tobacco use or exposure to second-hand smoke. Even though Senthil is well aware that smoking is injurious to health, he continues to light a cigarette. Like most smokers, it’s difficult for him to really understand that tobacco is the only legal drug that kills many of its users when used exactly as intended by manufacturers.
Butt, the reality
Cigarette consumption leads to cigarette butt waste. The cigarette butt is the small part, about 30 percent of the cigarette's original length, which is left after smoking and thrown away unceremoniously after a smoke. It consists of a ‘slow-to-degrade’ filter, usually made of a type of plasticised cellulose acetate, and remains of tobacco mixed with ash.
A research reveals that nearly two-thirds of all smoked cigarettes are dumped and discarded into the environment every year. A city like Bengaluru itself receives 31 lakh littered cigarette or beedi butts every day. Most litter studies have shown that when counting litter on a per-item basis, cigarette butts comprise the number one littered item.
In beach clean ups, they are the most common part of the garbage that is encountered. About 60-80 percent of marine litter is plastic, and one of the most common items of this plastic trash is cigarette butts.
A toxic puff
Tobacco smoke contains more than 4000 chemicals, of which at least 250 are known to be harmful and more than 50 are known to be carcinogenic. These include nicotine, tar, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, lead and arsenic, to name a few. In India, beedis are a more common feature, especially in rural areas. These are basically hand-rolled unfiltered cigarettes, rolled in dried betel leaves, tied on one or both ends with bits of colourful strings. Perceived to be natural and even herbal by many, these contain larger nicotine content in comparison with cigarettes. As per a study, they produce nearly three times the amount of carbon monoxide and nicotine, and approximately five times the amount of tar as cigarettes.
The cigarette butts that are discarded accumulate in open spaces, buildings, roads and just about everywhere. They then wind up in the soil or are carried away by drains and open channels into neighbouring water bodies. The toxic chemicals seep in the soil and contaminate groundwater. In water, the toxins quickly leach from the thrown butts into the water which leads to severe pollution and affect the aquatic ecosystems. Once introduced in the marine environment, they begin to break down into tiny fibres and are thought to interact with the marine organisms much like microplastics--minute in size but massive in toxicity.
A study on the effect of cigarette butts investigated and affirmed its toxicity on fish population. It concluded that smoked cigarette butts, both filtered and unfiltered, were acutely toxic to the representative marine and freshwater fish. Researchers further tested this effect and shown that only one cigarette butt can kill half the ﬁsh exposed to leachates in a controlled laboratory setting. Another investigation demonstrated that when the butts are soaked in water, a toxic soup is produced which, when tested, showed the presence of heavy metals. Thus, the water gets polluted and these toxic chemicals are absorbed by plankton and plant life, or consumed in parts by marine creatures. Not only do they cause acute harm to local species, but move up the food chain where the concentration increases.
Sometimes, a direct connect is difficult to uncover. “Dissection of seabirds has so far not resulted in any direct link to the ingestion of cigarette butts and as such their effects in the deep oceans is unknown,” clarifies Dr Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist from the University of Tasmania. “But, then this could either be because of the breaking down of the butts, such that the fibres cannot be traced back to their original form or because seabirds have a very acute sense of smell and find the butts too repulsive to consume.” Another research that reviewed ingested plastic for about 50 seabird species reported that the dissection of the stomachs and gizzards of the collected birds revealed plastic objects and particles that included cigarette filters among other items. Further studies are on to understand the health implications of cigarette butts on the oceans and the marine life more clearly.
"What is clear is that land-based research on the effects of cigarette consumption to human health can be used as an indicator of their effects on land and marine ecosystems," says Siddharth Chakravarty, an activist and long-time crusader for marine life. "The butts from a smoked cigarette contain all the heavy metals and the remains of the 4000 toxic chemicals, and are able to seriously impact the health of the environments they are discarded into."
No more ‘butts’
So what can we do to reduce this toxicity? To begin with, be aware that cigarette waste affects both environment and the public health. Talk to people about it, many may not be aware of the environmental risks involved. Litter is a behavioural issue. Increased public awareness, better information and consumer education can definitely make a difference. Governments can chip in by bringing in fines, penalties or laws for smoke-free beaches.
Most of us are clueless of the fact that cigarette smoking could be injurious to our oceans. So, maybe now is the time to think twice before lighting up, one for the sake of our health, and two for the effect of that discarded cigarette butt on our water and the marine life.