Cigarette smoking kills more than 480 thousand Americans every year and remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. As of 2018, more than 34 million adults were current smokers, nearly fourteen percent of the population .
Maybe you are part of this statistic, or maybe you are one of the millions of Americans who are exposed to second-hand smoke on a regular basis . Either way, have you ever stopped to consider what chemicals you are inhaling every time you take a puff or get caught downwind of someone who just lit up?
There are 93 chemicals in cigarettes that are either known to be harmful or are potentially harmful to your health . Some of these come from the tobacco plant itself, some are found in the cigarette, and some in the puff of smoke you release when you smoke it.
Chemicals in the Tobacco Plant
Nicotine: Nicotine is the naturally-occurring chemical found in the tobacco plant that is responsible for the addictive nature of cigarettes. It poses a number of health hazards, including an increased risk of cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal disorders, and it negatively affects your immune system and reproductive system .
Nicotine consumption can lead to cancer because of its effects on cell proliferation (the process of cell growth and division), oxidative stress (an imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals), apoptosis (the death of cells), and DNA mutation. It can also affect the growth and spread of cancerous tumors [5,6,7,8].
Cadmium: Cadmium is a heavy metal that is often found in the soil where tobacco plants are grown and may contribute to lung cancer and other smoking-related lung diseases [5,9].
Lead: Lead is another heavy metal that builds up in the soil as the tobacco plant grows. People with prolonged exposure to lead could be at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and reduced fertility [5,10].
Arsenic: More commonly known as rat poison, arsenic is a naturally occurring element in soil. It gets taken up by the roots of plants and therefore is present in tobacco leaves. Most of the arsenic we are exposed to through food is organic, and does not pose a health risk, however research has shown that aerosolized arsenic and cigarette smoke work together to increase DNA oxidation in our lungs. Ingested arsenic, therefore, is a risk factor for lung cancer, and this trend is much more prevalent among people who smoke cigarettes [23,24,25].
Chemicals in Every Cigarette
More harmful chemicals are naturally created, and some are added in, during the cigarette manufacturing process.
Tobacco-Specific Nitrosamines: TSNAs occur naturally when tobacco leaves are cured . This class of chemicals is implicated as a cause of multiple cancers, including oral cancer, lung cancer, oesophageal cancer, and pancreatic cancer. It is also a significant contributor to adenocarcinoma, which is a cancer that forms in mucus-secreting glands throughout the body [11,12].
Ammonia: This chemical commonly found in household cleaning products is added during the manufacturing process to increase the amount of nicotine you absorb when you smoke . It is a corrosive substance that can be toxic to the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, mouth, and digestive tract .
Chemicals in Cigarette Smoke
Many of the harmful chemicals that you are exposed to when you smoke are actually created when you light your cigarette.
Acetaldehyde: When tobacco additives, like sugar, sorbitol, and glycerol, are burned, they produce acetaldehyde, one of the main components of cigarette smoke. It reacts readily with other substances in the body and causes irritation of the airways, prompting the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to classify it as a potential carcinogen .
Carbon Monoxide: CO is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas, and is formed when tobacco is burned incompletely. There are large quantities of CO in tobacco smoke. Carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin in your blood, taking the place of oxygen. This means there is less oxygen available to be distributed to the organs in your body. Carbon monoxide is linked to cardiovascular disease .
1,3-butadiene: This is a flammable gas that smells similar to petrol, and is used in the production of synthetic rubber for car tires. Tobacco additives such as cellulose, paraffin, and sugars cause an increase in the amount of butadiene that is released when tobacco is burned. Long-term exposure to 1,3-butadiene can cause cancer in the lymph nodes, blood, and blood-forming tissue, such as leukemia and lymphoma. Non-smokers who are exposed to second-hand smoke are also at risk .
Acrolein: this highly reactive aldehyde and respiratory irritant formed when tobacco is burned. It causes oxidative stress, which means there are more free radicals in your body than antioxidants. This puts you at greater risk for cancer .
The Benefits of Quitting
As you can see, cigarettes contain numerous harmful chemicals, from carcinogens to toxic metals, to poisons . Even just smoking one cigarette a day will put you at a significantly greater risk for developing any number of health problems, including cancer.
The good thing, though, is that once you quit smoking you will begin to see the benefits right away. Just twenty minutes after quitting your heart rate and blood pressure will drop. Twelve hours later the carbon monoxide levels in your blood will return to normal. In two weeks to three months, your circulation will improve and your lung function will increase, and in one to nine months, the cilia in the back of your lungs will regain normal function so you can properly clear mucus and you will stop coughing and experiencing shortness of breath .
In only one year, your risk of coronary heart disease will be half of what it was while you were still smoking, and your risk for heart attack will drop dramatically. In five to ten years, your risk for cancer is cut in half, and after fifteen years your risk for coronary heart disease returns to that of a non-smoker .
So while it may be difficult to quit, the rewards of removing so many toxic chemicals from your body will be immeasurable. If you are thinking of quitting, speak with a health care provider who can help get you started and ensure that you are successful.
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