How Arsenic in Cigarette Smoke Hurts Your Health

cigarette smoke in woman's face

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Arsenic is a naturally occurring, poisonous element found in the soil. Arsenic may be found alone as a metal, or more commonly as a metal-like compound.

Organic arsenic is less toxic than inorganic arsenic, and accounts for most of the arsenic humans are exposed to, primarily through food and water.

Inorganic arsenic is a byproduct of smelting metals and was used in the past in chemicals that pressure-treated wood for outdoor use, though this has been phased out in recent years.

Organic Arsenic
  • Organic arsenic is formed when arsenic combines with carbon and hydrogen.

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

Can Arsenic Cause Cancer?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified arsenic as being carcinogenic (Group 1 classification) to humans.

Inorganic arsenic has been linked to several cancers, including:

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

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

Common Sources of Arsenic Exposure

  • Cigarette smoke: Arsenic-containing pesticides used in tobacco farming remain in tobacco through processing into cigarettes and are present in small quantities in cigarette smoke.
  • Food: The average American adult takes in 50 milligrams of arsenic each day, with 80 percent of it coming from meat, fish, and poultry. Some wines also contain noticeable levels of arsenic due to pesticides used in farming.
  • Drinking water: Arsenic seeps into well water primarily via bedrock. Groundwater is sometimes contaminated by runoff from soil containing arsenic.

Arsenic 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 is a constituent of thirdhand smoke.

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

Of that amount, 75-80 percent is absorbed by alveoli in the lungs, making the overall absorption of inhaled arsenic in cigarette smoke approximately 30 to 35 percent.

Arsenic, along with a host of other toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke exposes smokers (and non-smokers) who breathe in secondhand smoke produced by a burning cigarette to cancer-causing agents and poisons.

To date, researchers have identified more than 7,000 chemicals including 250 poisonous and 70 carcinogenic compounds in cigarette smoke.

If you're a smoker who wants to quit, education about what to expect when you stop smoking along with a support group of like-minded people will help you put smoking permanently in the past.

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  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry - U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Arsenic
  • California Air Resources Board Staff Report. Proposed Identification of Inorganic Arsenic as a Toxic Air Contaminant.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer. Overall Evaluations of Carcinogenicity to Humans.