Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Unfiltered Truth

This post was going to start with a humdinger. If you'll indulge:

"50mg: Amount of nicotine needed to kill an adult.
200: # of cigarettes butts needed to reach 50mg of trapped nicotine.
207: # of cigarette butts picked up in two weeks at Bay View."


Whoa. According to many public health Web sites (such as this and this and this), in two short trips to my local beach, I picked up enough cigarettes to kill me with their latent toxins.

Here's the thing. I can't find actual citation for this "fact" anywhere. Even a report in a scientific journal cites the 200 number, but the citation is for a Chicago Tribune article that sports a generic list of "citations" at the bottom. With no journal #, or URL, or anything else, there's no way to verify this.

Which sucks. Because I really wanted to open this post with an "I could be dead now!" shocker. But I can't. Because I don't have the facts. And because too many of the "facts" I do have are conflicting, dead-ends, or otherwise don't pass the smell test. Alas.

In an early post I coined a term: "keyboard flotsam" - the misinformation floating on the Web. Well, nothing has been more eye-opening than trying to find out basic info about cigarettes, filters, and toxins. It's a minefield. It's a place where personal attitudes & politics & trade secrets have conspired to make it very tough to get good, hard facts about what is assuredly a real problem.

Still, there's a lot of stuff I can tell you.

1. Human beings smoke some 5.5 trillion cigarettes a year. 5,500,000,000,000. Each year.

2. The number of cigarette butts that are discarded improperly across the world each year is staggering. Think about it: even if 99.9% made it all the way to the landfill or incinerator, that still leaves some 5.5 billion littered. Each year.

3. Cigarette butts contain a litany of known toxins:
(Until June 2009, cigarettes were unregulated by the FDA. It's only in coming months & years that the public will know precisely what cigarette manufacturers put into their products, and exactly what the 4,000+ cigarette smoke chemicals actually are.)

4. Cigarette butts don't biodegrade. They're made of cellulose acetate, a plastic. In ideal circumstances they'll reduce to a fine powder in a year. In the real world it can take up to 25 years. Even then, it's still a plastic -- just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's returned to nature.

5. Cigarette butts kill sealife. Two different studies have shown that as little as one cigarette butt placed in 2 gallons of water can be toxic to small fish that are essential parts of the food chain.

6. About 18% of litter ends up in waterways, usually being blown into storm drains and emptied into rivers. And most waterways eventually empty into the open ocean. 80% of marine debris comes originally from land-based sources.

7. Bay View has its share of beach-bound litterers, sure. But it also gets its butts from the sea:
Collected 6/29/10, sea-bleached & washed up among kelp and 3 inches of fresh sand at high-tide line

I can't say that the 207 cigarette butts (and counting) I've collected at Bay View would or wouldn't have killed me. I can't say, yet, how many came from the beach and how many from storm drains and boaters. I can say that cigarette litter is a massive, and still growing, issue across the world. Yet incredibly, some 60 years since the first links between tobacco & health were made, there are still very few studies on the effects of tobacco, cigarette smoke, filters, etc. in the environment.

So the next time you pass a scrubby cigarette butt lying in a gutter, on its way to a storm drain, remember three things: (1) that's a little pocket of poison, (2) it will most likely eventually join billions of its friends in the ocean, and (3) none of them are just going to go away.

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