Nature’s secondhand smokers

Back when I was smoking my first cigarettes with Joe Verni in the woods behind my house, I aspired to master the perfect cigarette flick: that long last drag, the casual toss, the brooding mind apparently mired in deeper matters. And when I was driving my dad’s car as a later teen (and still pondering weighty issues), the butts just went out the window. Unfortunately, those deeper matters did not include any concern for fish and wildlife — and I imagine that the same goes for many smokers today.

Yet that casually tossed cigarette butt can be a killer. In 1997, for example, there were 130,000 cigarette-related fires in the U.S., according to the American Burn Association; such fires kill about 1,000 people each year and injure 2,500 to 3,000 more, the group reports. Factor in the impact on wildlife and the death toll becomes astronomical.

Even cigarettes that don’t burn down a forest can kill. Most cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate; like other plastics, this one takes years to decompose. And during that time, it leaches chemicals into the earth and ground water. Those chemicals can be deadly to many minute creatures — especially when combined with the tobacco resin in that recently-dragged-on butt.

How deadly? Well, this is difficult to quantify, but someone has made a game attempt. In the August 2000 edition of the underwater naturalist, the journal of the American Littoral Society, Kathleen Register wrote about cigarette toxicity in water fleas.

According to her research, placing half the tobacco found in a used cigarette butt in one liter of water killed the entire control group (20 fleas) over a 48-hour period. In other words, even in unfiltered cigarettes, tobacco (a natural pesticide) is dangerous. Two used filters with the tobacco removed had the same effect (and before they died, the fleas swam unorthodoxly and developed ominous black markings — what we might call the cigarette buzz and developing cancer).

Now I have a dog, and fleas don’t get a lot of sympathy from me. In fact, the flea ranks pretty high on my list of annoying pests — somewhere between the mosquito and the gnat. But one creature that I’ve never had anything against — and that most people here in Western North Carolina seem to appreciate — is the fish.

Cigarette butts have been found in the stomachs of a wide variety of aquatic life, including our beloved trout.

“I’ve seen a lot of trout eat cigarette butts,” reported one local outfitter. “Got to be bad … just going to sit in his stomach,” said another (though neither had actually cut open a fish and found a cigarette within).

Author Gordon Charles, on the other hand, has done this several times, according to his syndicated column Outdoors with Gordie. In conversations with Charles, a North Carolina native who moved north to Michigan as a teenager in the 1930s, he explained that the butts in question had seemed “pretty well intact.” He said he’d found them in 12- to 14-inch brown trout that, he opined, are “supposed to be smarter than that.” Asked if he’d eaten the fish, Charles responded, “Oh, sure!” They looked like “good, healthy fish,” he explained, though he speculated that they might have “trouble pooping.”

Indeed. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a corn kernel, it seems, can be lethal to trout. According to Powell Wheeler, a fisheries biologist with the Wildlife Resources Commission’s District 9 (which covers much of Western North Carolina), corn has a cellulose sheath around it that fish — and humans — just do not have the “intestinal hardware to process.” And a trout’s intestinal tract is one-half the diameter of a pencil. In other words, said Wheeler, fish “die of constipation.”

He hadn’t previously considered the effect of a cigarette butt on a trout. After giving it some thought, however, he said he is “almost certain that it would kill them.”

Wheeler then went on to speculate on other potential effects. “I suspect there’s enough nicotine [in a butt] to kill a trout,” he added (which seems likely in light of Kathleen Register’s research). Granted, a trout is way bigger than a flea; the fish, however, has eaten the entire butt, allowing those same chemicals to leach into its flesh. In all probability, it amounts to a death race — constipation or cancer.

So please don’t feed the fish: Use an ashtray. Even if you think you’re nowhere near a river, remember that a lot of local storm drains empty into the French Broad River — which, happily, still has fish in it. Let’s do our bit to keep it that way.

[Asheville resident Eric Grant teaches English and journalism at Enka High School.]

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