When you pick up a pack of cigarettes, you'll notice that the packaging gives you a shortlist of 6 toxic chemicals that are released every time you light up. Health Canada requires tobacco companies to print the toxic emission levels of nicotine, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, tar, formaldehyde, and benzene - substances that are potentially poisonous for smokers and non-smokers.
Nicotine is perhaps the chemical that is most commonly associated with cigarette smoke. This naturally occurring compound in the tobacco plant is responsible for making cigarette smoking highly addictive. Nicotine can change the way the body works within seconds of being inhaled, resulting in increased blood pressure and heart rate, altered brain waves, and other related effects.
Carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide are another 2 highly toxic chemicals found in cigarette smoke. Carbon monoxide is a colourless and odourless gas that is released when tobacco is burned. It is the reason why a lot of smokers gasp for their breath after only light exercise. Carbon monoxide reduces the ability of red blood cells to transfer oxygen to vital organs such as the heart, brain, and muscles.
Hydrogen cyanide is a gas once used in chemical warfare. It damages the tiny hairs in the lungs that help keep the lungs clean. Frequent exposure to this chemical from smoking can lead to weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, rapid breathing, and eye irritation, among other things.
Tar, formaldehyde, and benzene are 3 of the over 50 chemicals released by burning tobacco that can cause cancer. Tar, a sticky black residue, contains hundreds of chemicals. It is responsible for the staining of teeth, fingers, and lungs. It causes damage to the cleansing system of the lungs and is the main cause of throat and lung cancers.
Formaldehyde isn't just what is used to preserve animals for dissection in labs - you inhale it from cigarette smoke too. Besides its cancer-causing effects, formaldehyde can lead to breathing problems as well as eye, nose, and throat irritations.
Benzene is a strong cancer-causing agent that has been linked to leukemia and other cancers. Benzene is harmful at any level of exposure, and is also banned for industrial use. And yet smokers inhale it with every puff.
But these are not the only culprits responsible for the harmful health effects caused by smoking. In fact, there are over 4,000 chemicals found in cigarette smoke, more than 50 of which are known to cause cancer. They include heavy metals, toxic gases, and chemicals used as pesticides.
Tobacco use is related to cancer of the lung, mouth, throat, kidney, and bladder; heart disease such as heart attack and stroke; emphysema and chronic bronchitis; and tooth loss and gum disease.
Written and reviewed by the MediResource Clinical Team