How Arsenic in Cigarette Smoke Hurts Your Health

Close up on man Man extinguishes the cigarette in the ash tray quitting no smoking lung health problems
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Arsenic is a naturally occurring poisonous element found in the soil. It may be found alone as a metal or more commonly as a metal-like compound. There are two kinds of arsenic compounds: organic and inorganic.

Organic Arsenic
  • Formed when arsenic combines with carbon and hydrogen

  • Less toxic than inorganic arsenic and accounts for most of the arsenic humans are exposed to, primarily through food and water

Inorganic Arsenic
  • Formed when arsenic combines with elements such as oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur

  • Byproduct of smelting metals and was used in the past in chemicals that pressure-treated wood for outdoor use

Skin lesions and skin cancer are the most highlighted health effects from long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic through drinking water and food. But there are other potential health concerns and routes of exposure as well, including cigarette smoke.

Can Arsenic Cause Cancer?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified arsenic as carcinogenic (Group 1 classification) to humans. Inorganic arsenic has been linked to several cancers, including:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Skin cancer

Inorganic arsenic is also known to cause skin lesions, including hyperpigmentation.

Most Common Sources of Arsenic Exposure

  • Drinking water: This is the most common source of inorganic arsenic exposure. Arsenic seeps into well water primarily via bedrock. Groundwater is sometimes contaminated by runoff from soil containing arsenic.
  • Food: The average American adult takes in 50 micrograms of arsenic each day, with 80% of it coming from meat, fish, and poultry. Some wines also contain noticeable levels of arsenic due to pesticides used in farming.

Though drinking water and food are the most common sources of arsenic exposure, people can also be exposed to arsenic through cigarette smoke—whether or not they smoke.

Arsenic in Cigarette Smoke

Arsenic is introduced into tobacco through the farming process and is present in small quantities in cigarette smoke. Inorganic arsenic is present in mainstream tobacco smoke and presumably in sidestream smoke as well.

Depending on average particle size, inorganic arsenic has an estimated atmospheric lifetime of nine days. Indoor concentrations of inorganic arsenic can be much higher than outdoors, and arsenic is a constituent of thirdhand smoke.

According to a 1990 report from the California Air Resources Board and the Department of Health Services, people who smoke breathe in approximately 0.8 to 2.4 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per pack of 20 cigarettes, with approximately 40% of it being deposited in the respiratory tract.

Older research from 1959 examined lung cancer patients and found that of the 40% of arsenic deposited in the lungs, 75% to 85% was absorbed. In other words, the overall absorption of inhaled arsenic in cigarette smoke was approximately 30% to 35%.

Arsenic, along with a host of other toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke, exposes smokers and non-smokers who breathe in secondhand smoke to cancer-causing agents and poisons. To date, researchers have identified more than 7,000 chemicals including 250 harmful and 69 carcinogenic compounds in cigarette smoke.

For people who smoke, it's not just the arsenic in cigarette smoke that should be concerning. Research indicates that smoking increases the health risks associated with arsenic exposure.

Arsenic exposure and smoking both increase a person's risk of cardiovascular disease, but when combined, a person's risk of dying of cardiovascular disease is magnified to a degree beyond the influence of either factor alone, according to a 2011 study.

Health Risks Associated With Arsenic

In addition to cancer and skin lesions, chronic low-level exposure to arsenic has been tied to several other negative health outcomes. A 2014 review found that across 15 studies, arsenic exposure at a young age was associated with issues in intelligence and memory.

Research indicates that arsenic exposure also may affect cognition in adults as well. A 2020 study that looked at more than 1,500 adults based in China found that chronic arsenic exposure was associated with cognitive decline. Another 2011 study found that long-term low-level arsenic exposure correlated with lower scores on global cognition, memory, and processing speed in a group of adults in Texas.

Exposure to arsenic has been correlated to mental health issues, though more research is needed to explore this relationship.

Finally, arsenic exposure has also been tied to other health concerns including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, anemia, reproductive issues, diabetes, immune system function, and impaired lung function.

The available research on the health risks associated with arsenic is primarily based on studies of people exposed to arsenic through contaminated drinking water and other environmental exposures—not cigarette smoke. But that is not to say that the arsenic in cigarettes isn't harmful.

While researchers may not know the precise effects of inhaling arsenic through cigarette smoke, it is known that ingesting and inhaling arsenic is harmful to health and smoking increases a person’s arsenic exposure.

Resources to Quit Smoking

There are so many benefits to quitting smoking. First and foremost, your physical and mental health will benefit greatly. One meta-analysis published in The BMJ looking at 26 different studies found that quitting smoking was associated with lower depression, anxiety, and stress.

If you smoke and want to quit, learn about what to expect when you stop smoking and seek support from friends, family, and healthcare providers. A healthcare provider may be able to help you choose a smoking cessation tool to ease the effects of nicotine withdrawal. There are quit aid products and smoking cessation medications available over the counter (OTC) and by prescription.

Behavioral interventions are also available to help you quit smoking. These include individual and group counseling, quit smoking programs, and telephone quitlines. According to the 2020 Surgeon General report on smoking cessation, a combination of behavioral intervention and medication is the optimal way to quit smoking.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

18 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Terry Martin
Terry Martin quit smoking after 26 years and is now an advocate for those seeking freedom from nicotine addiction.