Week of 10/25/09

Dear EarthTalk: Has anyone ever studied the environmental impact of discarded cigarettes? I’m constantly appalled at the number of drivers I see pitching their butts out their car windows.

—Ned Jordan, via email

It’s true that littered cigarette butts are a public nuisance, and not just for aesthetic reasons. The filters on cigarettes—four fifths of all cigarettes have them—are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that is very slow to degrade in the environment. A typical cigarette butt can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to decompose, depending on environmental conditions.

But beyond the plastic, these filters—which are on cigarettes in the first place to absorb contaminants to prevent them from going into the lungs—contain trace amounts of toxins like cadmium, arsenic and lead. Thus when smokers discard their butts improperly—out the car window or off the end of a pier or onto the sidewalk below—they are essentially tossing these substances willy-nilly into the environment.

Studies done by Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and even the tobacco industry itself show that these contaminants can get into soils and waterways, harm or kill living organisms and generally degrade surrounding ecosystems.

Studies done by Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and even the tobacco industry itself show that contaminants from cigarette butts can get into soils and waterways, harm or kill living organisms and generally degrade surrounding ecosystems.© Jason Means, courtesy Flickr

While individual discarded cigarette butts may be small, they add up to a huge problem. Some 5.5 trillion cigarettes are consumed worldwide each year. The non-profit Keep America Beautiful reports that cigarette butts constitute as much as one-third of all litter nationwide when measured by the number of discarded items, not volume. According to the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit that advocates for stronger protection of marine ecosystems, cigarette butts are the most commonly littered item found on America’s salt and fresh water beaches according to feedback received by hundreds of thousands of volunteers taking part in the group’s annual Coastal Clean-up event.

While the tobacco industry may have its hands full just trying to stay afloat in the maelstrom of ongoing bad publicity, critics say it should be doing more to prevent cigarette butt litter. "Just as beverage manufacturers contribute to anti-litter campaigns, and have invested in public education on litter issues, so too should the tobacco industry," says Kathleen Register, founder and executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways, a non-profit that has spearheaded the fight against cigarette butt litter in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. She adds that cigarette manufacturers "need to take an active and responsible role in educating smokers about this issue and devote resources to the cleanup of cigarette litter."

Register suggests a number of strategies including putting anti-litter messages on all cigarette packaging and advertisements, distributing small, free portable ashtrays, and placing and maintaining outdoor ashtrays in areas where smokers congregate. She also suggests putting an extra tax on cigarette sales, with proceeds going toward anti-litter education efforts and to defray the costs of cleaning up butts. "Picking up littered cigarette butts costs schools, businesses and park agencies money," she says. "By taxing smokers for anti-litter educational efforts, some of the costs of cleaning up cigarette butts will shift onto smokers." One way or another, Register hopes, smokers will learn that the Earth is not one giant ashtray.

CONTACTS: CDC; Clean Virginia Waterways.

Dear EarthTalk: I recently had a tissue mineral analysis indicating that my levels of the nutritional element, molybdenum, were off the chart. I believe this may be leaching from my stainless steel cookware. Is this element toxic to my body?

—Barbara, Fruitland Park, FL

Having trace amounts of molybdenum in our bloodstreams is not only normal but beneficial. But if your levels are abnormally high, switching from stainless steel pans to cast iron (pictured here) or anodized aluminum might be a good idea.© Getty Images

Having trace amounts of molybdenum in our bloodstreams is not only normal but beneficial. The element piggybacks onto bacteria to help us metabolize proteins and grow new cells, and also helps keep our vertebrae and tooth enamel strong. But too much of it can indeed be toxic.

Health care practitioners worry more about miners exposed to molybdenum dust on a daily basis than they do about everyday folks with occasional and incidental exposure via cookware and ingested foods. Few if any cases of acute toxicity in humans have been documented, though animal studies have shown that ingesting small but frequent amounts can lead to diarrhea, growth retardation, infertility, low birth weight and even gout. It has also been shown to negatively affect the lungs, kidneys and liver.

But most of us need not fear, as the amount of molybdenum we get naturally from eating foods like green beans, eggs, sunflower seeds, wheat flour, lentils and cereal grain is not enough to cause any severe health reactions, and, again, is an important building block component of our diets. In fact, a deficiency of molybdenum in one stretch of northern China—where the element does not occur naturally in the region’s soils—has been linked to a higher-than-normal rate of esophageal cancer.

Additional amounts of molybdenum could be getting into your foods from stainless steel cookware, but manufacturers insist that if their products are not dinged and pocked from overuse or abused with abrasive brushes or detergents during clean-up they shouldn’t leach much of anything into the food cooking inside.

Of all the elements used to make stainless steel, molybdenum is one of the most able to tolerate high heat without expanding, softening or otherwise breaking down. That’s largely why it is approved for use in food-grade products by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Incidentally, its heat tolerance is also why it is used in the making of missiles, aircraft, rifle barrels, light bulb filaments and furnace components.

While it is unlikely that the amount of molybdenum in a normal human diet is enough to cause severe health reactions, no one would fault someone with reason for concern to take precautions. For starters, if you do have too much molybdenum in your systems, add some tungsten (sodium tungstate) into your diet, which naturally reduces the concentration of molybdenum in human tissues.

With regard to cookware, switching away from stainless steel might be a good idea for anyone with high molybdenum levels in their bloodstreams. No cookware is perfect, but cast iron and anodized aluminum seem to be the top choices today for cooks concerned about leaching elements. While cast iron is known to leach some iron into food, iron deficiencies were far less common before World War II when most of our grandparents cooked with it. And anodized aluminum is an ideal non-stick, acid- and scratch- resistant surface which locks-in aluminum that could otherwise leach into food.

CONTACTS: International Molybdenum Association

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