Dirty Butts

Butts can keep away parasites in a nest but also spread poison and disease

Last week, while driving, I turned the corner on Main & University and a woman going the other direction in a white car sat at the stoplight. As I passed, she flung a cigarette butt in my direction from her open window. I had to wonder: do cigarette butts carry coronavirus?

Believe it or not, cigarette butts are the most prevalent trash–4.5 trillion are discarded annually world wide. They consist of cellulose acetate, a fairly standard plastic. Seventy-five percent of smokers admit to tossing their butts onto the ground or out car windows. They persist in the environment for a long time, and what’s caught in them flows out into the wide open spaces.

Chemists have been studying the environmental impact of cigarette butts on the environment. Being the kind of chemist who might study such a thing, an analytical chemist, I’ve attended talks about butt pollution. In one study, chemists at a university tested the ground at a pristine park and at a well known smoking area near by where butts littered the ground. No surprise, nicotine was found in the soil in the smoking area. More surprisingly, other chemists found that the butts emit vaporized nicotine and other toxins for up to a week after they’ve been used. Cigarette butts give off heavy metals such as lead and arsenic (which are toxic). They contain cholesterol (also in smoke according to a 1971 study). They leach plasticizers. Butts inhibit plant growth.They sicken kids who eat them.They are almost as dangerous as cigarettes themselves. Being near an ash tray is like smoking. (Some people advocate coffee grounds in ashtrays to soak up the smell.)

Sharing a smoke spreads all sorts of things–viruses, bacteria, flu, Hepatitis A. Cigs are not well regulated and are filled with toxic mold and bacteria. Do butts carry coronavirus? I can’t find any evidence. Yet, it seems likely they do.

New York is covered with butts and they have an outbreak.

People smoke most in Southeast Asia. They haven’t been hit hard by the virus, or are underreporting.

Even tidy Singapore has coronavirus. Health officials there are looking askance at disposable items such as napkins used in outdoor markets as “mini biohazards.” They note that birds will fly around with disposable items such as tissues. Birds also pick up cigarette butts, and sometimes feed them to their babies, not only in Singapore but across the globe.

The butts create water pollution. Even if they don’t spread coronavirus, which can live on surface for days so it is a possibility, they are harmful. People are rushing to stock up on toilet paper in case of a quarantine. It would be good if other butts, along with disposable napkins, cups, etc. were cleaned up as well.

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