Butts are no joke: FAAS, the evidence

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  • Published: Jul 15, 2016
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: Atomic
thumbnail image: Butts are no joke: FAAS, the evidence

Smokers' legacy

Graphite furnace atomic absorption spectrophotometry (FAAS) reveals that toxic metals from cigarette butts could be an important source of pollution thanks to the millions that are discarded by smokers and end up on shorelines and in the oceans.

Graphite furnace atomic absorption spectrophotometry (FAAS) reveals that toxic metals from cigarette butts could be an important source of pollution thanks to the millions that are discarded by smokers and end up on shorelines and in the oceans.

Smokers nonchalantly discard some 5 trillion butts outdoors each year across the globe. Each butt represents a putative source of heavy metal pollution containing cadmium (Cd), iron (Fe), arsenic (As) nickel (Ni), copper (Cu), zinc (Zn) and manganese (Mn) and other contaminants at varying levels depending on where the tobacco was grown and the paper and plastic components of cigarette filters. The concern is that this huge amount of seemingly innocuous litter represents a marine pollution source that is anything but benign with heavy metals from this source potentially entering the marine environment and thence the food chain.

Sina Dobaradaran, Iraj Nabipour, Afshin Ostovar, Maryam Khorsand, Nahid Khajeahmadi, Reza Hayati, and Mozhgan Keshtkar of Bushehr University of Medical Sciences and Reza Saeedi of the Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran, provide detailed data from their FAAS study of cigarette butts in the journal Tobacco Control.

Smoking heavy metal

Previous research had also pointed to the ease with which metals can leach from cigarette butts into the environment but Dobaradaran and colleagues wanted to understand the implications of this in the environment. As such, they have monitored heavy metals in cigarette butts taken from nine different locations along the north part of the Persian Gulf in the Bushehr seaport coastal regions. They samples were taken during the summer of 2015 from the top 100 millimetres of sediment and those deposited at the tidal mark on the beaches.

The team measured the metal content of the cigarette butts twice, on collection day and then ten days later to assess the effects of marine currents on metal concentrations. They found that levels of each metal analysed varied significantly: from about 80 micrograms per gram to 245 micrograms per gram for iron, manganese: 38 to 123 micrograms per gram, for example. Arsenic level was between 0.12 and 0.48 micrograms per gram. However, when the butts were tested had no significant affect on the assessment regardless of where the samples had been collected. They demonstrated a recovery percentage ranging from 91 to 107% and a relative standard deviation of 0.8% to 5.9% in their FAAS data.

Butt awareness

The team points out that levels may vary because of tobacco cultivation, soil type and the use of pesticides and herbicides affecting levels perhaps. Some metals may be added during cigarette manufacture or in the application of brightening agents to wrapping paper too. The spongy cellulose acetate cigarette filters found in the vast majority of cigarettes can act as a conduit for the transportation of metals in marine environments, the team adds. The impact could be highly detrimental to ecosystems. "Whereas elevated concentration of heavy and trace metals in water and soils can adversely affect some species, contamination may increase the metal tolerance of other organisms," the team writes. "Considering the estimated amount of cigarette butts littered annually the release of metals may increase the potential for acute harm to local species and may enter the food chain," they add.

As is ever the case, more research is now needed to understand fully the leaching behaviour of metals from cigarette butts into the marine environment. In the meantime, it will likely be a difficult task to raise the awareness of smokers to the toxicity of discarded cigarette butts.

SpectroscopyNOW asked Dobaradaran about the next steps with this work and he agreed that more research is needed in order to comprehensively answer important questions about or not other toxic metals from cigarette butts are transferred to aquatic ecosystems and whether adsorbed toxic metals from the environment become concentrated and transferred to marine organisms and the food chain through this carrier. We need to better understand the effects on environmental quality and ecological risks, chemical toxicity of cigarette butt leachates on water and aquatic organisms, diffusion pathways in the marine environment, and leachates from cigarette butts after their biodegradation.

Related Links

Tobacco Control, 2016, online: "Association of metals (Cd, Fe, As, Ni, Cu, Zn and Mn) with cigarette butts in northern part of the Persian Gulf"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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