Hazards of cigarette filters addressed at event

These are just some of the cigarette butts picked up at a Wednesday cleanup at McCarty’s Cove. Earlier in the day, “Nine Lives of a Cigarette Butt,” a presentation at Northern Michigan University, took place to educate people about environmental and health hazards cigarette filters pose. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Beware of those bits of cellulose acetate polymer scattered throughout town, eventually making their way into Lake Superior.

Not only can they hurt water quality and wildlife, their very existence is part of a major health hazard to humans.

We’re talking about cigarette filters, which were the subject of a Wednesday presentation, “Nine Lives of a Cigarette Butt,” at the Lydia Olson Library at Northern Michigan University. The event was part of the UP4Health Challenge.

The program was twofold: educating people about the ecological and environmental effects of tobacco litter in and around Lake Superior, and the impacts of cigarettes on the human body.

Discussing the environmental aspect was Madelyn Ek, Superior Watershed Partnership self-sufficiency educator.

“Did you know that 5.6 trillion cigarettes are smoked every year worldwide?” Ek asked. “Cigarette filters are the single most common form of litter in the world.”

In fact, 30 percent of the total litter collected by count can be attributed to filters.

Marquette has the same problem.

“Did you also know that all storm drains within in the city of Marquette lead to Lake Superior?” Ek said. “With no filtration process, everything that’s swept into the drains goes directly out into the lake.”

Keep in mind that Marquette has about 3,300 storm drains.

Each cigarette filter is made from cellulose acetate polymer, not cotton, which is a common misperception, Ek said.

“Additionally, within the filter are all the chemicals that were once within the cigarettes,” said Ek, who pointed out they contain carcinogenic pesticides and nicotine.

What’s known throughout the environmental and health communities are the harmful effects of nicotine, but filters? Not so much.

“We know what’s in a cigarette,” Ek said. “We know that it’s harmful to you.”

However, she believes many people don’t realize cigarette butts have negative effects after the fact.

Also, since they’re plastic, cigarette filters aren’t biodegradable, which keeps them persisting in waters, she said. Then filters can harm wildlife in several ways, one being that animals could mistake them for food.

Action is being taken on the local level to deal with the cigarette filter problem.

The SWP, she said, has undertaken some initiatives, including placing red buckets throughout Marquette, beginning in 2012, where people can dispose of their cigarette butts.

“That has directly reduced the cigarette butt litter on the streets,” Ek said.

SWP also has posted signs around town, letting people know that what’s in the water in which they are swimming — much of it unpleasant — comes from the streets.

Of course, smokers should dispose of their cigarette butts correctly, but non-smokers can play a role as well, picking them up and discarding them in nearby receptacles — and washing their hands when they get home, she said.

“If you see anything on a beach, if you could pick it up, that would be doing everyone a service, especially cigarette butts, knowing they are harmful to the environment as well,” Ek said.

Ek also participated in a UP4Health Challenge volunteer beach cleanup late Wednesday afternoon at the popular McCarty’s Cove, located along Lakeshore Boulevard in the city of Marquette.

Andrea Fairfield, of Marquette, was another participant.

“I know there are cigarette butts everywhere, along with a lot of trash,” Fairfield said. “Just doing my part.”

Talking about the personal health hazards of cigarette filters was Dr. Kevin Piggott, who is board-certified in family medicine and preventive medicine. He is semi-retired after 30 years in clinical practice, hospital administration, public health and medical education.

“Tobacco use is lethal, and it is the leading cause of preventable illness and death,” Piggott said.

Depending on the survey, between 15 and 18 percent of the population in the United States smokes, he said, with about 480,000 deaths per year directly attributed to tobacco use — and even more people deal with chronic conditions related to tobacco.

“More than 10 times as many U.S. citizens died prematurely from cigarette smoking than have died in all the wars that the United States has fought during its history,” Piggott said.

Lungs, obviously, are affected through smoking, but it has been determined it affects every organ of the body, he said, and second-hand smoke also is hazardous.

For example, tobacco use can result in stroke, diabetes, tuberculosis and cataracts, among other conditions.

“It really involves every organ system,” Piggott said.

Fortunately, there appears to be a downward trend of smoking since 2010 in Marquette County, he said.

Programs and policies to help people quit smoking are in place, such as smoke-free air policies — like the one at NMU — and full access to treatment programs, he said.

According to the NMU website, NMU’s tobacco-free campus prohibits the use of all tobacco products on all university property and university owned vehicles, with a few excluded areas.

However, improvements still can be made.

One is looking at increasing the minimum age for buying cigarettes to 21 or 25, he said.

“We also have to look at recent portrayals of smoking in our media,” Piggott said. “Recently there’s been an increase in the number of tobacco exposures in our movies.”

Co-sponsoring the event with the UP4Health Challenge were the Lydia Olson Library, Marquette County Achieve and the NMU Tobacco-free Committee.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.


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