All about the fitness and health lifestyle
All about the fitness and health lifestyle

How Tobacco Butt Pollution Hurts Marine Life

Last Updated:
June 13, 2023
Kay Nicole

How Tobacco Butt Pollution Hurts Marine Life

Cigarette butts are the most common item found during coastal cleanups. They contain substances that leak into the water and are carcinogenic. Experiments have shown that discarded filters and remnant tobacco poses a biohazard to aquatic flea. It was found that smoked filter and tobacco leachate was toxic to Daphnia at concentrations as low as 0.125 butts per liter, or one butt for two gallons of water.


Cigarette butts contain a host of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. When exposed to water, these chemicals leach into the environment, poisoning the animals that drink from and eat them. Arsenic is one such chemical. It is a potent carcinogen that can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, anemia and malignant skin tumors. It also damages the heart, lungs and kidneys. Despite the many campaigns against smoking and efforts by cities, businesses and organizations to encourage smokers to use handheld or permanent ashtrays, these measures have not substantially changed smokers’ entrenched butt-flicking behavior.

Moreover, the cellulose acetate that comprises cigarette filters does not biodegrade under most conditions and thus continues to contribute to the growing volume of plastics entering our oceans. The organic compounds and heavy metals in discarded cigarette filters are highly toxic to fresh and saltwater fish. A single cigarette butt in a liter of water killed more than 50% of the fish (water fleas) tested.


Cigarette butts are cellulose acetate plastic that adds to the enormous amount of plastic debris carelessly poured into our oceans. This plastic debris breaks down into tiny pieces, known as microplastics, which marine animals easily consume. It causes them to lack nutrition as their stomachs are occupied with indigestible plastic, which poisons them. The toxins in cigarette butts can leach into waterways and bio-accumulate the food chain. It can cause commercial fisheries to fail and harm the health of everyone who consumes seafood.

The cellulose acetate in cigarette filters is also toxic to aquatic plants and animals, including seabirds and sea turtles. Ingestion of these toxins can lead to sublethal effects, such as reduced feeding or energetic deficiencies. These problems can be traced back to cigarette butts containing organic chemicals and heavy metals. These pollutants can adsorb other contaminants, like pesticides or industrial compounds. It is why avoiding smoking outdoors or using a receptacle for your butts is important.

Toxic Chemicals

Cigarette butts contain over 4000 chemicals, including phenols (toxic compounds that cause respiratory problems), cyanide (kills fish), Arsenic (causes nausea and vomiting), formaldehyde (leaches from wood and kills worms), toluene (a paint thinner) and acetone (stunned plant growth). These toxic chemicals leach out of the cellulose acetate filters and into water. They are deadly to marine life because they are often mistaken for food.

When cigarette butts are flicked onto beaches, tossed in parks or dropped on streets, they’re usually swept by storm drains into bodies of water. These butts are a constant source of hazardous chemicals in the ocean and on shorelines, especially when they disintegrate into microplastics. A recent study found that cigarette butt leachate (a liquid that drips from a burning cigarette) is acutely toxic to freshwater daphnids, with a 48-hour LC50 of 0.125 cigarette butts per liter of water. These chemicals primarily affect the water flea, Daphnia magna. Water fleas exposed to these chemicals develop dark deposits or accumulations on their swimming hairs, called setae. They may also flounder, become dehydrated and appear unwell.


Cigarette butts contain a mixture of toxic metals, including Arsenic and lead. These toxic chemicals leach out of the cigarette filter and into the environment, causing harm to marine life. Over time, tiny amounts of these heavy metals seep into the ocean water. They are taken up by organisms in the water food chain, including bottom-dwelling invertebrates and mosquito fish. The toxic chemicals also accumulate in their tissues. The lead in cigarette butts can interfere with the natural functions of these organisms, killing them or damaging their health. Researchers have found cigarette butts inside the bodies of sea birds, turtles and fish. It’s not unusual for field workers to find a discarded cigarette at the site of a dead bird or sea turtle. Cigarette companies have tried to address the issue by promoting anti-litter campaigns and distributing handheld and permanent ashtrays. But these measures have not reduced smokers’ entrenched “butt-flicking” behavior. Research shows that these efforts have had little impact on cigarette litter levels.


Toluene, a key component of nail polish remover, nicotine, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde are just a few of the more than 165 compounds in cellulose acetate-based cigarettes that take between two and twenty years to break down. They also contain arsenic, benzene, benzo[a]pyrene, copper and lead. The tobacco industry uses millions of gallons of water to grow the plants that become cigarettes. This pollution seeps into the soil and then runs off into drains, rivers, beaches and oceans. A single cigarette butt soaking in a liter of water released enough toxins in a laboratory experiment to kill 50% of freshwater and saltwater fish exposed to it for 96 hours. The good news is that many smokers are switching to unfiltered or vaping products, which don’t produce a harmful waste stream.

magnifiermenu linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram