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The Most Abundant Substances

We’ve all known for years that smoking is bad for your health. There are a long list of health problems associated with smoking, including cancer, lung disease and heart disease. Approximately half of all smokers will lose their life early as a result of smoking related illness.
Cigarette smoke contains thousands of chemicals, many of which are linked to serious health problems. These chemicals include hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, arsenic, ammonia, carbon monoxide, benzene, cadmium and many more.
Around seven million people die of smoking related illnesses each year and in the UK alone around one hundred thousand people die as a result of smoking. Tobacco products are widely regarded as the largest preventable cause of death in the world. Second-hand smoke is estimated to cause more than ten thousand deaths each year in the UK.

So, let’s take a look at the deadly concoction of carcinogens, toxic metals, poisons and radioactive elements found in cigarette smoke. Starting with three of the harmful substances that you’ll find most of in cigarette smoke, we’ll try to understand what makes them so dangerous.


Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that’s colourless and odourless. Apart from cigarette smoke, carbon monoxide is emitted from car exhausts as well as faulty gas stoves and boilers. Exposure to higher levels of carbon monoxide can result in a coma or death, but exposure to lower levels is also linked to a variety of health problems.
After being inhaled into the lungs, carbon monoxide enters the blood where it reduces the blood’s ability to transport oxygen around the body. Reduced oxygen puts more pressure on the heart and other organs and causes flu like symptoms including dizziness, headaches and weakness.

Tar is a variety of harmful chemicals that combine together to form a sticky substance that coats the lungs. Approximately seventy percent of the tar inhaled in cigarette smoke remains in the lungs where it causes tissue damage as well as other health problems.
Tar contains many of the carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, chemicals found in cigarette smoke. As well as increasing the risk of cancer, tar can also cause diseases like emphysema, chronic inflammation of the lungs, reducing airflow, and bronchitis, inflammation of the airways that carry air into the lungs.

Nicotine is not carcinogenic or harmful in the same way that many of the chemicals found in cigarette smoke are. However, the addictive nature of this substance is a problem as nicotine is what makes it so difficult for the many smokers who want to quit smoking and the associated health risks.
While nicotine can be harmful in high quantities, it’s the cravings that come from nicotine addiction that are the biggest problem. This is why vaping and other nicotine replacement options make it easier to quit the dangers of smoking. In fact, vaping has been proven to almost double the chances of quitting for good.

Other Harmful Things

This is a list of just some of the poisonous chemicals, heavy metals and carcinogenic substances found in tobacco smoke. Of the thousands of chemicals in cigarette smoke, hundreds have been linked to serious health risks and while these aren’t present in the same quantities as carbon monoxide, tar and nicotine, they can still cause permanent damage even at low levels.

Acetaldehyde is categorised by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a Group 2B carcinogen, meaning that exposure might cause cancer in humans but it is not certain.

Arsenic is a toxic heavy metal and exposure to higher levels is harmful to health and is commonly used as a rat poison. Arsenic is a Group 1 carcinogen meaning it’s been proven to cause cancer.

Benzene is also a Group 1 carcinogen. Benzene can be found in petrol and exposure to this chemical is known to cause leukemia.

Cadmium is a toxic metal used to make batteries. Smokers typically have twice as much cadmium in their bodies as non-smokers and exposure to this toxic substance can lead to lung damage and even death.

Formaldehyde> is categorised as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde in cigarette smoke also causes irritation to the throat, nose and eyes.

Hydrogen Cyanide is a poisonous chemical that has been used in gas chambers to execute people. Lower levels of exposure can cause lung damage was well as nausea, headaches and fatigue.

Isoprene is another Group 2B carcinogen, meaning it is suspected to increase the risk of cancer. Isoprene also causes irritation of the nose, throat and eyes.

Lead is a toxic metal which can cause long term harm to the body including damage to the brain and nervous system as well as kidneys and stomach. Lead is also a Group 2B suspected carcinogen.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAH are a group of chemicals carcinogens. PAH are associated with lung cancer and skin cancer as well as infertility.

Vinyl Chloride is a carcinogenic chemical used to make plastics like PVC. Vinyl chloride is toxic, causing liver damage as well as being a Group 1 carcinogen linked to brain and lung cancer.

Radioactive Materials

Cigarette smoke also contains two radioactive elements, lead-210 and polonium-210. These radioactive materials can be found in the soil and fertiliser when tobacco is grown and they’ve been detected in the cigarette smoke that smokers inhale.
There are thousands of chemicals present in cigarette smoke and many of them are known to be harmful, causing cancer, lung disease, heart disease and more. Some of these substances are present in larger concentrations than others but they all contribute to the fact that around half of smokers will die as a result of smoking related illness.
Quitting smoking reduces our exposure to these poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals, lowering the risk of developing health problems that can result in long term illness and death. Quitting also reduces the health risk to those around us as more than ten thousand people in the UK die each year of second hand smoke.

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