Cigarette butts kill fish, scientists complain

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Chemicals that leach from cigarette butts into water can kill fish, according to Professors Tom Novotny and Rick Gersberg of San Diego State University. They have conducted the first scientific study of the effects of cigarette butts on fish and will present his research today at the American Public Health Association annual meeting in Philadelphia. The SDSU researchers are calling for cigarette butts to be officially reclassified as toxic waste.

Professor Novotny explained, "It’s another way of looking at cigarettes as a societal hazard. If we reframe the butts as toxic hazardous waste, that adds another opportunity to change the social acceptability of smoking."

Cigarettes are the most frequently littered item in the world. More than 1 million cigarette butts are collected annually in cleanups at United States beaches. Worldwide, several trillion cigarettes get smoked each year.

Cquote1.svg "This is just another attack on smokers and an attack on the entire tobacco industry, including farmers and distributors, in the midst of an economic crisis." Cquote2.svg

—Robert Best, Citizens Freedom Alliance

Professors Gersberg and Novotny allowed smoked cigarette filters to soak in water for 24 hours, then added fish to the tanks. Within five days half the fish had died. They obtained the same results with fresh water and with salt water at a concentration of roughly 1 butt per liter. Their research was funded by the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project of the California Tobacco Related Disease Research Program.

The regional director of a smokers' rights group is dismissive of their work. Robert Best of Citizens Freedom Alliance told the press "This is just another attack on smokers and an attack on the entire tobacco industry, including farmers and distributors, in the midst of an economic crisis. We already have littering laws in the state of California that say you cannot throw any trash out on the ground or in the waterways.”

Coastal states in the United States have been enacting bans on smoking at beaches. California and New Jersey have enacted bans to reduce secondhand smoke exposure and reduce litter. The city of San Francisco has added a 20 cent surcharge to each pack of cigarettes sold to cover costs of butt cleanup. A San Francisco litter audit led to an economic study that found the annual cost of cigarette butt disposal was $6 million. Oxford Outcomes spokesman Dr. John Schneider told the press the San Francisco cigarette surcharge was justified.

Cquote1.svg "We have thought for a while that toxic chemicals leach from discarded butts when submerged in water, so it’s good in some ways to see confirmation." Cquote2.svg

—Bill Hickman, Surfrider Foundation

Robert Barnes of UC San Francisco endorses tobacco surcharges to pay for cleanup. He also supports steeper fines for cigarette litter and advocates lawsuits against the tobacco industry to compensate for cleanup costs. The Surfrider Foundation takes a milder approach. It has run a "Hold Onto Your Butt" litter awareness program for six years. Bill Hickman of the Surfrider Foundation was glad to see scientific validation for the awareness campaign. "We have thought for a while that toxic chemicals leach from discarded butts when submerged in water, so it’s good in some ways to see confirmation."

Gersberg and Novotny want to perform followup studies to determine which cigarette butt chemicals are most harmful to fish.


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