Demystifying Chemicals in Cigarettes

It is now common knowledge that a cigarette isn’t just rolled tobacco; there are some 599 other ingredients in your average cigarette other than the tobacco leaf. Additionally, there are a mind-boggling 4,000+ chemicals in cigarette smoke, 250 of which are harmful, and another 69 are known to cause cancer. Despite the fact that these figures are repeated over and over again, the numbers seem meaningless to many. Placing a numeral on a problem gives it anonymity, when what is needed is clarity and explanation.


So, how do we get from a tobacco leaf to an additive laden, poison producing cigarette? To start with, the tobacco plant picks up naturally occurring contaminants as it grows. Pollutants like pesticides also contribute to the chemical content of tobacco. Before it is ever harvested, the plant has absorbed everything from metals in the soil to insecticides. Once harvested, the tobacco has to be cured, processed, and formed into cigarettes. Throughout the entire process, additives are included by tobacco manufacturers for a variety of reasons. Even the curing process forces chemical changes in the tobacco without the aid of any additional chemicals present.


When a cigarette is lit, chemical reactions begin to take place. Properties of individual chemicals change, mix with one another, and create new chemicals. Some that were completely inactive before may now become dangerous, and the combinations are so varied and volatile that it is nearly impossible to study exactly what the consequences of inhaling the smoky byproduct could be. The studies that have been concluded on the complex mixtures flatly show that cigarette smoke is a lethal cocktail.



Key Players

Although there are too many toxins in cigarette smoke to review here, a few are real eye openers.

Formaldehyde is used as a preservative for dead bodies. It is also commonly used to produce other chemicals. Short term exposure can cause nausea, watery eyes, coughing, and burning of the sensitive eyes, nose, and throat. In 2004, it was classified as being known to cause cancer in humans.

Radioactive metals, specifically Lead-210 (Pb-210) and polonium-210 (Po-210) are present. They are a byproduct of natural decay of uranium, and make their way to the tobacco plant in microscopic amounts. It remains there, right up until the tobacco is burned and inhaled. These bits of radioactive material eventually build into radioactive areas, causing increased risks of lung cancer.

Benzene is another carcinogen, and is specifically linked to leukemia. It is also used to produce nylon and gasoline. A powerful toxin, it can cause coma, paralysis and convulsions when a person is exposed to high amounts in a short period of time, and after long term exposure, can cause immune system problems and genetic damage.

Ammonia is a very common household chemical that is usually reserved for cleaning. Tobacco companies, however, add ammonia to tobacco during processing. Why? It helps boost the effect that nicotine has on the smoker. This helps to ramp up nicotine addiction, helping to keep smokers hooked.

Tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines (TSNAs), are naturally occurring carcinogens that are enhanced during curing to become some of the most potent cancer causing agents in not just cigarettes, but smokeless tobacco products as well. Lung, liver, pancreatic, and possibly cervical cancer are all linked to exposure to TSNAs.

Arsenic is used in pesticides on tobacco plants. It can cause coronary damage and is also a carcinogen.

The nicotine that addicts a smoker causes a dearth of health problems, as does the carbon monoxide that replaces some of the oxygen flowing through the bloodstream. Cadmium, a carcinogen used to make batteries shows up, along with Acrolein, previously used as a chemical weapon.

Everything listed above is just a small sampling of the dangerous chemicals found in tobacco smoke. More information on the many other toxins is available here, and Cancer Research UK also offers a good list of the compounds and the side effects.


Still Unknown

Although major tobacco companies gave out a list of the 599 additives it used in cigarettes in 1994, no list has since been released. Additionally, the list did not specify exactly how the ingredients were added, because the blends were what gave each cigarette brand and type its unique flavor. Without a real ‘recipe’, it is hard to determine the complex composition and chemical signature of that particular cigarette. Additionally, tobacco companies have a long and checkered history of doing everything within their power to hide how dangerous their product is, and how often they manipulate it to keep smokers hooked.




Radioactive Tobacco

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