Monday, November 9, 2009

No butts about it

Even if you’re an environmentalist or a tobacco control expert, you may not have thought much about the public health toll of the 1.6 trillion cigarette butts disposed each year worldwide.

More than just litter, cigarette butts are toxic waste that leaches cancer-causing chemicals into water and air.

The speakers at today’s session on “Banning Butts” are looking for ways to frame the issue, build scientific evidence and support regulations that will help alleviate the deluge of tobacco waste that pollutes our cities and enters our watersheds.

One consequence of this waste entering water supplies is the toxicity to marine life. One study discussed by investigator Rick Gersberg of San Diego State University found that a concentration of about one smoked cigarette butt per liter of water killed half the fish studied in a four-day period. Gersberg said potential sublethal effects and bioaccumulation should be considered in future studies, as well as the identification of the specific compounds responsible for the toxicity.

Elizabeth Smith of the University of California at San Francisco spoke about her very clever look into tobacco industry documents. She found out (spoiler alert!) that the last thing industry wants is for “antis” and “greens” to band together to support regulation of tobacco waste, which most likely would mean that industry would be responsible for paying for cleaning up disposed filters. She also found some unintentionally funny suggestions from a focus group of smokers that the cigarette industry convened. To deal with the filter waste, why don’t the companies give it another life by making it usable as food for animals or a breath mint for humans, perhaps? Yeah, sounds real appetizing.

For now, filters are still non-biodegradable toxic waste that isn’t regulated. Today’s speakers are trying to change that by building public awareness and supporting regulations that would make the industry that creates the waste financially responsible for dealing with it. That’d sure be another kick in the butt to the cigarette companies, wouldn’t it?

To get involved in getting rid of cigarette waste, visit the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project.


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