On Earth Day, just observed on April 22, activists, nature lovers, scientists, policy advocates, and concerned citizens call out the largest industrial contributors to climate change and environmental pollution, like fossil fuel producers, and demand that they take responsible action to help heal the planet. One culprit that usually escapes this scrutiny is the tobacco industry. Big Tobacco’s profits come at the expense of great harm to human and environmental health, but the industry is not being held accountable for all the destruction it causes.
By now, everyone knows about the effects of tobacco on human health; the negative environmental impacts receive much less attention. Cigarettes and other tobacco products are a major pollutant of air, earth, and water. Toxic chemicals, particulate matter, and greenhouse gases emitted from the smoke of the 5.7 trillion cigarettes consumed annually worldwide contribute to air pollution and climate change. The contamination from tobacco litter can end up in landfills and waterways, leaking a residue of nicotine and other toxins into groundwater, rivers, and lakes, and threatening these ecosystems and the organisms living in them. Further, most tobacco is now cultivated in developing countries where lack of regulation gives growers a free hand to apply pesticides and powerful chemicals that taint the soil and water sources.
Cigarette butts, so casually discarded by most smokers, are one of the most littered items in the world, and are essentially not biodegradable. This is because the filters are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate, a substance that can take up to 10 years to break down into microplastic bits that never really go away. These filters, supposedly designed for human safety, collect arsenic, lead, formaldehyde and other toxic ingredients used in the manufacture of the modern cigarette, which then leach into whatever environment they are tossed, or travel through storm drains and run-off into broader ecosystems. Once these toxins enter the food chain, nothing is exempt from exposure, from microbes to fish to humans.
Nicotine itself is a poison and the nicotine residue in cigarette butts can be harmful to birds and other animals that mistake them for food, as well as curious pets, and children. Just one filter consumed by a child can cause mild nicotine poisoning, with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, tremors, and high blood pressure. Severe poisoning can be life-threatening. In one case, an 8-month old who swallowed two cigarette butts had to be put on a ventilator because she was too weak to breath on her own. Fortunately, she recovered. A 3-year-old boy in New York was not so lucky; he died after drinking the contents of a capsule of e-liquid from an e-cigarette. (New York now requires e-liquids to come in childproof packaging.)
The rising popularity of e-cigarettes and other vaping systems (in 2017, the e-cigarette giant Juul alone sold over 16 million of them) poses an additional environmental threat. Vaping devices come in many shapes and sizes, but they are all made up of the same components: a capsule that holds e-liquid, a heating element, and a battery, all enclosed in a hard plastic case. Some models have re-fillable capsules; others, like Juul, employ single use pods, each filled with the equivalent amount of nicotine in a whole pack of cigarettes. The latest generation of vapes, such as Puff Bars, are designed to be throwaways. None of the components of e-cigarettes are environmentally friendly; in fact, the batteries and e-liquid containers are categorized as hazardous waste. Properly disposing of them is difficult, even if users are inclined to do so.
Currently, responsibility for dealing with tobacco and e-cigarette waste falls on consumers, not manufacturers. Changing the behavior of millions of users, one person at a time, is not realistic. A better approach would be to require tobacco companies to meet standards that minimize environmental impacts, perhaps by creating biodegradable filters, to start. Additionally, e-cigarette producers could offer trade-in programs or other incentives to keep batteries and e-liquids out of landfills.
The current pandemic is a reminder that human health and the health of the planet are inextricably intertwined. This is the message of Earth Day; we can’t have one without the other. Policy solutions that mitigate the damaging environmental effects of tobacco products are long overdue.
The Healthcare Consortium is a non-profit organization with a mission of improving access to healthcare and supporting the health and well-being of the residents in our rural community. The agency is located at 325 Columbia St. in Hudson. For more information: visit www.columbiahealthnet.org or call 518-822-8820.