Cigarette smoke contains in excess of 7,000 chemicals, hundreds of which are poisonous and harm the body immediately upon inhalation. The toxic chemicals travel quickly from the lungs straight into the bloodstream, from where they are able to reach every organ and body tissue. The chemicals in cigarette smoke harm both smokers and nonsmokers.
Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Cigarette Smoke
There are approximately 70 chemicals in cigarette smoke that cause cancer, including lung, oesophagus, throat, mouth, stomach, bladder, pancreas and cervical cancer. Here are a few:
- Benzene – found in gasoline fumes and vehicle emissions. May increase the risk of leukemia.
- Benzo(a)pyrene – formed from the partial burning of certain substances. Found in car exhaust fumes, wood fire smoke, gas and oil products and charred foods. May cause warts, skin colour changes, a burning sensation, bronchitis and cancer.
- Ethylene oxide – used in pesticides, antifreeze and for cleaning medical equipment. Exposure can cause headaches, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and lung damage. Long-term exposure may increase the risk of cancer.
- Vinyl chloride – used to make pipes and plastics. Exposure may increase the risk of lung, liver and brain cancer, as well as leukemia and lymphoma.
Poisonous Gases in Cigarette Smoke
Here are some of the poisonous gases found in cigarette smoke:
- Ammonia – colourless gas with a distinct odour. Used in fertilisers and household cleaners. High-level exposure can irritate the eyes, skin, throat and lungs.
- Carbon monoxide – odourless, colourless, poisonous gas emitted from burning fuel in car exhausts and heaters. Stops red blood cells from transporting sufficient oxygen to body cells and tissues.
- Hydrogen cyanide – colourless gas with a distinctive bitter almond odour. Used to make chemical weapons. High concentrations can cause death within minutes.
- Toluene – colourless, strong-smelling liquid used to make paint, paint thinners, nail polish, glue, gasoline and rubber. High levels in the air may cause fatigue, headaches, dizziness, loss of appetite, nausea, confusion, hearing loss, loss of consciousness, kidney damage and death.
Toxic Metals in Cigarette Smoke
The following toxic metals, some of which are carcinogens, are found in cigarette smoke:
- Arsenic – carcinogenic, poisonous chemical used in pesticides to kill pests and weeds. Breathing air containing high levels of arsenic can irritate the throat and lungs.
- Cadmium – carcinogenic byproduct of zinc refining used for making batteries, plastics, alloys, pigments and electroplate. High-level exposure can damage the lungs, kidneys and bones.
- Chromium – used to make steel. Breathing contaminated air can cause nasal irritation and breathing difficulties, such as asthma.
- Lead – used to make metal products, batteries, ammunition and for shielding X-rays. Breathing air contaminated with lead can affect the nervous system. High-level exposure may cause brain damage, kidney damage and miscarriage.
Cigarette smoke is a deadly concoction of cancer-causing chemicals, poisons and toxins and no level of smoking is safe, including passive smoking. Each time chemicals from cigarettes enter the body, they cause a little more damage and disruption to the body’s tissues. Serious health effects of prolonged cigarette smoking include cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease and cancer, among others.
For information about quitting smoking, readers may be interested in How to Help Someone Quit Smoking, The Health Benefits of Quitting Smoking, How to Make a Stop Smoking Plan, Stop Smoking with Nicotine Replacement Therapy and Given Up Smoking? How to Never Smoke Again.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “ATSDR Substances List” (Accessed 14 January 2011).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “A Report of the Surgeon General. How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: What it Means to You” (Accessed 14 January 2011).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Inhaling Tobacco Smoke Causes Immediate Harm” (Accessed 14 January 2011).
National Cancer Institute. “Harms of Smoking and Health Benefits of Quitting” (Accessed 14 January 2011).