Cigarette butts continue to emit nicotine and other substances into the air for days

We can see the remains of smoked cigarettes, so-called cigarette butts, and estimates reveal that there are five trillion (5000 billion) cigarette butts generated by people every year across the globe. Naturally, such waste has an environmental impact, as has already been demonstrated by various studies.

However, when we think about the environmental impacts of cigarette butts, we usually refer to the soil (or water if the butts are abandoned in watercourses or in the sea) and never to the fact that these butts can continue to pollute the air even though they are no longer lit. This is what a team of researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) considered.

The scientists devised a method for analyzing the chemicals that swirl and are still present in the air around cigarette butts, hours and days after the cigarettes had been extinguished. The researchers “smoked” over 2100 cigarettes using a “smoking machine” that simulates what humans do when they smoke, including movements and gestures with their hands. The same cigarettes were then extinguished in a stainless steel chamber in which scientists were able to analyze air emissions hours and days after they were extinguished.

The researchers made a very interesting discovery: cigarette butts, once completely cooled, can emit up to 14% of the nicotine emitted from a whole cigarette and smoked in a single day. This is a result that first surprised the researchers, as Dustin Poppendieck, one of the scientists who participated in the study whose results were then published in Indoor air, admits.

In addition to nicotine, the researchers measured eight of the hundreds of chemicals that are typically emitted from a cigarette when it is smoked. These include triacetin, a plasticizer that is used to make the filters stay hard. Triacetin can make up to 10% of a filter. They also found that the higher the temperature, the more the butts emitted the chemicals into the air at higher speeds.

“Nicotine from a cigarette butt after seven days could be comparable to nicotine emitted from the main and secondary smoke [second or third hand smoke] during active smoking,” Poppendieck notes. This means that, for example, if you don’t empty an ashtray at home or in the car for a week, non-smokers who frequent these rooms are exposed to more than a significant amount of nicotine.

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