Toxic Tobacco Smoke

Smokers rarely think about the chemicals present in tobacco or the adverse effect of inhaling toxic tobacco smoke has on their body. And smokers are very efficient at extracting these chemicals with an estimated 90% being absorbed into the body. Tobacco is formed from the discharged and cured leaf of the plant Nicotiana tabacum. Once burnt it releases a whole host of chemicals. Of course the smoker is primarily interested in nicotine, although it has been established that there are other chemicals present in cigarette smoke that have addictive properties. Unfortunately for the smoker in order to obtain their ration of addictive nicotine they also have to absorb all the other chemicals as well.

In a previous article I wrote about four of the chemicals present in tobacco smoke: nicotine, acetaldehyde, nitrosamines and tar. In this article, 'what is in a cigarette', I'm going to consider four of the lesser known chemicals which make up the deadly brew that is tobacco smoke.

What is in a Cigarette – Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odorless gas produced by burning tobacco. It accumulates in the smoker's blood stream and combines with the molecule (haemoglobin) responsible for carrying oxygen around the body. Not only does carbon monoxide react with haemoglobin but it selectively displaces oxygen so reducing the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. The amount of carbon monoxide in the blood is dose dependent, so a pack a day smoker will often have a level of about 20 parts per million while a two pack a day smoker will typically have levels of 40 parts per million. This has both short and long term health consequences. On immediate exposure the smoker may experience shortness of breath and the heart rate increases to compensate for the loss of oxygen. In the long term carbon monoxide facilitates the deposition of fatty material in aircraft which historically leads to heart disease.

What is in a Cigarette – Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is another extremely toxic chemical released by burning tobacco. It is used medically to preserve tissues and has a strong pungent odor; morticians use it as an embalming agent. Formaldehyde is responsible for much of the irritating effects of smoking causing the burning feeling in the mouth and throat often experienced by smokers. Long term formaldehyde exposure has been linked to nasal cancer.

What is in a Cigarette – Heavy Metals

Toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and arsenic are found in tobacco smoke. One heavy metal in particular is especially hazardous; polonium 210. This heavy metal is not only toxic by virtual of being a heavy metal it is also slightly dangerous because it is radioactive. It takes little imagination to work out how inhaling radioactive particles affects the lungs. It has been estimated that a 30 a day smoker poses their lungs to radiation equivalent to 300 X-rays a year; now that can not be good. It should come as no surprise then that smokers have a lung cancer risk of 10 times that of a non-smoker.

What is in a Cigarette – Hydrogen Cyanide

This chemical needs little introduction. I think often everyone has heard of this notorious chemical. It was used by the Nazis during the Second World War as a genocidal agent and even today four states, in theory at least, are allowed to use hydrogen cyanide to dispatch prisoners. Mercifully however, this has not been a technique used for a while. While it is true that smokers are unquestionably to experience the frank effects of cyanide poisoning, there can be little doubt that low dose exposure typically experienced by smokers can cause nausea, headache and dizziness.

What is in a Cigarette?

The answer is a nasty cocktail of toxic chemicals dedicated to shortening the life of the smoker. I've just scratched the surface when it comes to discussing the poisonous chemicals in cigarettes and other forms of tobacco. This brief account embarks the dangerous properties of tobacco smoke and how it can harm your health.

Interested in smoking cessation? Maybe you are ready to quit? Evidence suggests that your smoking habit may influence your chances of getting that dream job.