Photo: Are there harmful chemicals in discarded cigarette butts?

Cigarette butts can leach chemicals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic. (Credit: Replicated Rubbish via Flickr)

Flicked out of car windows, stomped out on sidewalks and strewn about our parks and beaches — several trillion cigarette butts are littered worldwide each year. Cigarette butts can leach chemicals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic into our environment within an hour of contact with water.

About 95 per cent of cigarette filters — added in the 1950s — are made of cellulose acetate. It's a plastic that degrades slowly. And the filter is designed to accumulate toxics. A butt may contain up to 60 known human carcinogens, including formaldehyde and chromium.

Cigarette butts have been discovered in the stomachs of sea turtles, birds and dolphins. As well as exposing the animals to hazardous chemicals, they can also cause digestive blockages. When the butts are lodged in an animal's intestinal tract or collect in the stomach, they can cause death. Nicotine has also been shown to be lethal to certain species of fish and other aquatic organisms. A study by scientists at San Diego State University found that a single cigarette butt containing a small amount of unburned tobacco was enough to contaminate a litre of water and kill half the fish swimming in it.

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Some estimates indicate that one in three cigarettes end up as litter. I believe it. Each September I and a host of Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup volunteers pick up more than 400,000 cigarette butts. They're one of the top five litter items, next to plastic bags, food wrappers, caps and lids, and cutlery and dishes.

The good news is that many cities are trying to reduce cigarette butt pollution — and reduce fire hazards and improve the health of people — by banning smoking in parks and at beaches. Thanks to the cities of Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Peterborough for leading the way!

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