So About That ‘Glowing’ Cigarette…
By the end of the 1920s, scientists already knew that tobacco smoke contained a small encyclopedia’s worth of risky chemical compounds: carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide and formaldehyde, ammonia and pyridine (a component in industrial solvents).
I discovered that list when I was researching my book about early 20th century toxicology, The Poisoner’s Handbook. And I remember being surprised because I had believed that it wasn’t until the mid-20th century, maybe a little before the famed 1964 U.S. Surgeon General report on the dangers of smoking - that we really knew anything about the health risks of smoking.
Of course, that 1920s list turns out to only be the bare start of the one we’ve assembled today. By some counts, there are a good 4,000 chemical compounds in cigarettes and, of those, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies more than 100 as dangerous (from carcinogenic to addictive). Given the body of evidence, linking cigarette smoking to disease, it’s not necessarily a surprise to find that the smoke contains well-known bad actors ranging from arsenic to toluene.
Still, I’ll confess to being startled last week when I was researching the suspected radiation poisoning of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and discovered that one of the most common sources of radiation exposure is through smoking cigarettes. I wrote about that in the context of the recent exhumation of Arafat’s body and the toxicity texts underway in a post called “Yasser Arafat and the Radioactive Cigarette.”