There are 69 known cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco smoke.
While nicotine itself isn’t thought to be carcinogenic, it’s the reason why smokers continue the habit.
This highly addictive drug is toxic and potentially lethal in large doses.
Apart from its use in tobacco products, nicotine is a scheduled poison under the State Poisons Act. When they get their dose of nicotine, smokers also inhale about 4,000 other chemicals.
Most of these compounds are chemically active, and trigger profound and damaging changes in the body.
Tobacco smoke contains dangerous chemicals. The most damaging compounds in tobacco smoke include:
1,3-butadiene – or BDE is an industrial chemical used in rubber manufacture. Some scientists believe that of all the chemicals in tobacco smoke, BDE may present the greatest overall cancer risk. It may not be as good at causing cancer as some of the other chemicals listed here, but it is found in large amounts in tobacco smoke.
Ammonia – ammonia is a strong chemical, found in household cleaners and formaldehyde (used for preserving organs of dead people in morgues), which also damages the lungs.
Arsenic – is one of the most dangerous chemicals in cigarettes. It can cause cancer as well as damaging the heart and its blood vessels. Small amounts of arsenic can accumulate in smokers’ bodies and build up to higher concentrations over months and years. As well as any direct effects, it can worsen the effect of other chemicals by interfering with our ability to repair our DNA.
Acrolein – is a gas with an intensely irritating smell and is one of the most abundant chemicals in cigarette smoke. It belongs to the same group of chemicals as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, both of which can cause cancer.
Benzene – is a solvent used to manufacture other chemicals, including petrol. It is well-established that benzene can cause cancer, particularly leukemia. It could account for between a tenth and a half of the deaths from leukemia caused by smoking.
Cadmium – is a metal used mostly to make batteries. The majority of cadmium in our bodies comes from exposure to tobacco smoke. Smokers can have twice as much cadmium in their blood as non-smokers.
Carbon monoxide – this odor less gas is fatal in large doses because it takes the place of oxygen in the blood. Each red blood cell contains a complicated protein called hemoglobin; oxygen molecules are transported around the body by binding to, or hanging onto, this protein. However, carbon monoxide has an even greater affinity for binding to hemoglobin than does oxygen. This means that the heart of a smoker has to work much harder to get enough oxygen to the brain, heart, muscles and other organs.
Formaldehyde – is a smelly chemical used to kill bacteria, preserve dead bodies and manufacture other chemicals. It is one of the substances in tobacco smoke most likely to cause diseases in our lungs and airways.
Hydrogen cyanide – the lungs contain tiny hairs (cilia) that help to ‘clean’ the lungs by moving foreign substances out. Hydrogen cyanide stops this lung clearance system from working properly, which means the poisonous ingredients of tobacco smoke are allowed to remain inside the lungs.
Metals – tobacco smoke contains dangerous metals including arsenic, cadmium and lead. Many of these metals are carcinogenic.
Nitrogen oxides – animal experiments have shown that nitrogen oxides damage the lungs. It is thought that nitrogen oxides are some of the particular chemicals in tobacco smoke that cause the lung disease emphysema.
Polonium-210 – is a rare, radioactive element and polonium-210 is its most common form. Polonium strongly emits a very damaging type of radiation called alpha-radiation that can usually be blocked by thin layers of skin. But tobacco smoke contains traces of polonium, which become deposited inside their airways and deliver radiation directly to surrounding cells.
Chemical properties of polonium-210
Radioactive compounds – tobacco smoke contains radioactive compounds, which are known to be carcinogenic.
Tar – this is the collective term for all the various particles suspended in tobacco smoke. The particles contain chemicals including nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Tar is sticky and brown, and stains teeth, fingernails and lung tissue. Tar contains the carcinogen benzo(a)pyrene that is known to trigger tumour development (cancer).
Smoking Effects on the Respiratory system
The effects of tobacco smoke on the respiratory system include:
–Irritation of the trachea (windpipe) and larynx (voice box).
–Reduced lung function and breathlessness due to swelling and narrowing of the lung airways and excess mucus in the lung passages.
–Inability of the lungs to cough out and clear poisonous substances, which results in lung irritation and damage.
Smoking and the Circulatory system
The effects of tobacco smoke on the circulatory system include:
–Raised blood pressure and heart rate.
–Constriction (tightening) of blood vessels in the skin, resulting in a drop in skin temperature.
–Less blood, which carries oxygen, available to the body.
–Stickier blood, which is more prone to clotting.
–Damage to the lining of the arteries, which is thought to be a
contributing factor to atherosclerosis (the build-up of fatty deposits on the artery walls).
–Increased risk of stroke and heart attack due to blockages of the blood supply.
Cigarettes Effects on the Immune system
The effects of tobacco smoke on the immune system include:
–The immune system doesn’t work as well.
–The person is more prone to infections.
–It takes longer to get over an illness.
Smoking Addiction Dangers to Musculoskeletal System
The effects of tobacco smoke on the musculoskeletal system include:
–Reduced blood flow to extremities like fingers and toes
–Tightening of the muscles
–Reduced bone density.
Other Effects Of Smoking On the Body
Other effects of tobacco smoke on the body include:
–Irritation and inflammation of the stomach and intestines
–Increased risk of bleeding ulcers along the digestive tract
–Reduced ability to smell and taste
–Premature wrinkling of the skin
–Higher risk of blindness and hearing loss
Smoking and The Male Body
The specific effects of tobacco smoke on the male body include:
–Lower sperm count
–Higher percentage of deformed sperm
–Reduced sperm mobility
–Lower sex drive
–Reduced levels of male sex hormones
–Impotence, caused by reduced blood flow to the penis
–Increased risk of reproductive system cancers, including penile cancer.
Smoking Effects on the Female Body
The specific effects of tobacco smoke on the female body include:
–Lower sex drive.
–Reduced levels of female sex hormones.
–Menstrual cycle irregularities or absence of menstruation.
–Menopause reached one or two years earlier.
–Increased risk of reproductive system cancers, including cancers of the cervix, vulva and breast.
–Greatly increased risk of stroke and heart attack if the smoker is aged over 35 years and taking the oral contraceptive pill.
–Can increase facial hair.
–Can lead to depression.
Smoking Dangers to the Unborn Baby
The effects of maternal smoking on the unborn baby include:
–Increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth.
–Low birth weight.
–Increased risk of cleft palate and cleft lip.
–Greater risk of developmental problems, such as attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
–Paternal smoking can also harm the fetus if the non-smoking mother is exposed to passive smoking.
If the mother continues to smoke during her baby’s first year of life, the child has an increased risk of ear infections, respiratory illnesses such as asthma, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and childhood cancers such as acute lymphocytic leukaemia.
Diseases Caused by Long Term Smoking
A lifetime smoker is at high risk of developing a range of potentially
lethal diseases, including:
All types of cancer, such as cancer of the lung, mouth, nose, throat,
pancreas, blood, kidney, penis, cervix, bladder and anus. Lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema. Coronary artery disease, heart disease and heart attack. Ulcers of the digestive system. Osteoporosis. Poor blood circulation in extremities, which can lead to amputation.
Things to Remember
Most of the 4,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke are chemically active and
trigger profound and potentially fatal changes in the body.
The most damaging substances in tobacco smoke include tar, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen cyanide, metals, ammonia and radioactive compounds.
Sources: Surgeon General, U.S
National Center For Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
UK’s “Smoke is Poison” campaign, funded by the Department of Health.