Cigarette butts are leaking thousands of deadly toxins into the environment

GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Many smokers and non-smokers are familiar with the stale stench of old cigarette butts polluting sidewalks, bus stops, and beaches all over the world. Cigarette filters are the most common form of litter on a global scale. Now, researchers from the University of Gothenburg report that these butts are also leaking thousands of toxins and plastic fibers into the surrounding environment. Ideally, study authors say the time to ban these filters outright is now.

More specifically, this latest study determined that both the microfibers and chemicals that leak out of the filters in cigarette butts are indeed toxic to aquatic larvae.

“The filter is full of thousands of toxic chemicals and microplastic fibers, so it’s not just any piece of plastic that’s being discarded into the environment. It’s hazardous waste,” says Bethanie Carney Almroth, Professor of Ecotoxicology at the University of Gothenburg, in a media release.

Smokers throw away trillions of butts each year!

Study authors tested the impact of toxins found in cigarette filters after smoking, as well as additional substances present in the filters from the start, on aquatic mosquito larvae. They found that the toxins fostered a 20-percent higher mortality rate among mosquito larvae. Earlier research has also shown that toxins in these filters can be detrimental to the health of many other aquatic organisms. For example, fish can die if they encounter levels of toxins equivalent to just two cigarette butts in one liter of water across a span of four days.

“Cigarette filters are also a major source of the microplastics that find their way into our environment – something we know has a major negative impact on biological life. The EU has already classified cigarette filters as hazardous waste,” explains Professor Carney Almroth.

An astounding 4.5 trillion cigarette butts pile up globally on an annual basis, with 65 percent of those butts never actually reaching a trash can or ashtray. A smoked cigarette butt, meanwhile, can contain as many as 7,000 different chemicals. Even unused filters hold around 4,000 chemicals, many of which are toxic.

Each filter also contains roughly 15,000 microplastic fibers. Scientists estimate a total of 300,000 tons of plastic fibers leak into the environment annually due to cigarette butts. These butts aren’t just bad news for the environment, as studies show the filters themselves can be a health hazard for smokers — due to plastic fibers dislodging from the filters and people breathing them directly into the lungs.

cigarette butts in an ashtray
Photo by Markus Winkler from Pexels

Are filters actually helping smokers?

Interestingly, in the city of Gothenburg, study authors noticed many local smokers tend to throw their cigarette butts on the ground even if there are ashtrays nearby.

“The clean-up costs the municipalities millions of kronor, but there will still be many cigarette butts in the environment. We are now conducting a survey of plastic litter across all of Sweden with the aid of community science in what we’re calling the Plastics experiment. That way, we can work with school children and others to get better figures on where and how many cigarette butts with filters are found in the environment, in addition to other problematic plastic products” adds Prof. Carney Almroth.

All in all, she posits there is no valid reason for filters to remain a component of cigarettes. In collaboration with other scientists, the professor recently wrote an opinion piece in the magazine Science of the Total Environment arguing that cigarette butts are both the most common litter item in the world and nothing more than a marketing ploy that ultimately does little to protect smokers in reality.

“That’s why they have to be taken off the market entirely. It’s not the right approach to focus on making tobacco producers pay for cleaning up the filters. The problem should be prevented in the first place, rather than cleaned up later,” Professor Carney Almroth concludes.

The study is published in Microplastics and Nanoplastics.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

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  1. The simple answer to this is to charge a deposit on every pack of cigs sold. Add $1 to the price which is 5 cents per butt. This will allow people to make money off items that people throw on the ground daily. They can go around and pick up the discarded butts and collect the deposit.

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