Are Cigarette Butts Toxic Waste?

April 29, 2015   3:23 pm

Filed under: Blog,Magazines,Portfolio — Phil @ 3:23 pm

This story first appeared in OpenFile Halifax.

The driver in the car in front of me is smoking. His left forearm leaning on the door, he taps his ash out onto the road every so often. When he’s done, he tosses the butt away. A small shower of embers flies towards me, then the what’s left of the cigarette is gone – or at least it appears to be.

Turns out it may be a little more complicated than that.

“Throwing away cigarette butts is not like throwing away an apple core,” says Dalhousie biology professor Bill Freedman. “They are definitely persistent litter – and they look crappy.”

While Tim Horton’s cups may be some of the most visible litter lining roads in the province, cigarette butts make up much larger percentage of the crap that Nova Scotians toss onto the side of the road.

Of the 16,388 pieces of litter collected for a 2008 study of litter across Nova Scotia, nearly 70% were cigarette butts. Worldwide, about 5.6 trillion butts are discarded – one way or another – each year.

Cigarette butts are made up of paper, tobacco and a sheath made of a plastic called cellulose acetate. Freedman says they look bad and can take several years to break down. But he doesn’t believe their toxicity is an issue.

Thomas Novotny is not so sure.

A professor at San Diego State University’s Graduate School of Public Health, Novotny has closely studied the environmental impact of cigarettes.

He says there is no doubt cigarette butts contain a lot of nasty compounds – 5,000 or so chemicals, including at least 40 known carcinogens. “We don’t know yet whether they cause significant environmental pollution,” Novotny says. “What we do know is they have the potential to be toxic.”

In May 2011, the journal  Tobacco Control published  a special supplement called “The Environmental Burden of Cigarette Butts” and it includes a paper co-written by Novotny on their toxicity.

The researchers put smoked cigarette butts in water – one litre per butt – then tested the effects on two types of fish: the marine topsmelt and freshwater fathead minnow. In each case, about half the fish died. The paper says it is the first to “investigate and affirm the toxicity of cigarette butts to fish.”

Novotny believes his team have “identified that cigarette butts are a pollutant” – and that leads to more questions. “Do these things bio-accumulate? Do they get into the food chains and concentrate in fish? We don’t know yet. We haven’t gotten that far.”

Look down while standing on Spring Garden Road around Park Lane and you’re likely to find yourself staring into a sea of cigarette butts – many of which will eventually wash into the city’s storm drains.

That doesn’t worry John Sibbald, pollution prevention manager with the Halifax Water Commission. Asked if cigarette butts are a concern for the Water Commissin, he says “not at all.”

“I saw in one of the magazines we get that someone did some study where they put a cigarette butt in a gallon of water and a goldfish died or something,” Sibbald says.

“Sure there are levels of toxicity related to them, but nowadays we are able to analyze all sorts of things in our storm water. We’re picking up caffeine along with other compounds we ingest as humans, and they wind up in our surface water bodies.”

But Sibbald does admit that “there’s no denying they have an impact. If it’s a measurable impact, I don’t know.”

Linda Campbell, an environmental scientist at Saint Mary’s, is an expert on how stressors influence aquatic environments. She doesn’t know of any studies done on the affects of cigarette pollution in Nova Scotia, but she says the butts contain “nicotine, metals, solvents, and other chemicals that can be toxic to many organisms” and that “they do pose a risk to aquatic organisms. Toxic responses can arise from directly consuming used cigarette butts or being exposed to chemicals that leach off discarded cigarette butts in water.”

Campbell says she’d be most concerned about areas with high numbers of visitors – such as the Public Gardens. “The duck ponds in the Halifax Public Gardens are potentially a site of high risk. I’d be most worried about aquatic animals which feed on organisms in the sediment and about zooplankton. Fish and ducks will eat anything that looks similar to their usual tasty prey, and cigarette butts – especially those with some tobacco still remaining – contain sufficiently toxic concentrations which would definitely affect the animals health.”

Toxic or not, there’s no denying that there are far too many butts making their way into the Nova Scotia environment – where they can take up to 10 years to break down.

And that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

“Ιt’s the last acceptable form of littering,” Novotny says. “A national survey here in the US revealed that most smokers know that cigarette butts are pollution, but about 2/3 of them admit they have flicked their butts onto the ground in the last month. It’s so ingrained in the smoking ritual.”


New stuff coming soon…

February 7, 2014   10:52 am

Filed under: Uncategorized — Phil @ 10:52 am


A quick note about this site. I am not keeping it as current as it could be, because I am in the process of changing over to a new site, with a new look, designed by Zsofi Koller. So it doesn’t seem worth it to spend a lot of time making this one all shiny and fixing its quirks.

You can find a few samples of my work here, but if you are looking for more recent clips or stories, I’d be happy to send them along to you. Please contact me using this form, or connect with me on the social media platform of your choice. I use Twitter, Facebook, and, to a lesser extent, Linkedin.

See you soon, when the renovations are complete.

Doing meat differently

January 14, 2013   3:32 pm

Filed under: Blog,Portfolio,Radio — Tags: , , , , , — Phil @ 3:32 pm

A couple of years ago, I was sent out to interview John Duynisveld of Holdanca Farms. He’s a research scientist with Agriculture Canada who grew up on a farm, and who farms himself. On his land in Wallace, in northern Nova Scotia, he raises pigs, cattle, lambs, turkeys, and lots and lots of chickens. (He also has a pretty sweet-looking and very effective guard llama.)

After meeting John and spending some time on his farm, I became a customer, and much of the meat my family purchases now comes from him.  Here is my radio documentary (it’s under 10 minutes) on how John raises and markets his meat, and why he’s eschewed traditional approaches.

Tantallon development flawed

   2:32 pm

Dear Mr. Mayor and members of the Central Community Council,

I am unable to attend the public consultation tonight, and am writing to urge you to not approve the development for the Tantallon Crossroads, as currently proposed by Genivar and Cobalt.

I know that the Saint Margaret’s Bay Chamber of Commerce, Stewardship Association, and SMB Tourism have written to you on this issue, and I substantially agree with their points. In order to avoid repetition, I will briefly sum up my concerns, as a 15-year resident of Glen Margaret.

1) Over the last few years, various community groups, with the cooperation of HRM, have held public consultations and visioning sessions to develop a proposal for the character of the Upper Tantallon Crossroads. These sessions were well-attended, and produced a cohesive set of guidelines that would encourage appropriate development, maintain the coastal character of the community, and enhance the area as a tourism destination. The result of these sessions was a series of proposed by-law amendments that have yet to be adopted. Under the proposed amendments, the development under consideration would not be acceptable (much in the way that Skye Halifax was not acceptable under HRM By Design — and Council made the correct decision in not proceeding with it). The Genivar-Cobalt proposal is only under consideration because, for whatever reason, nearly two years after the by-law amendments were proposed, they have yet to be adopted. The proposed by-laws should first be adopted, and Council should then consider development proposals that are consistent with them.

2) Given that the proposed by-laws were the result of an inclusive community process, one hopes they will eventually be adopted. However, approval of this proposed development will effectively gut the vision of the Crossroads and make the amended by-laws almost irrelevant. This would be an essentially anti-democratic process.

3) Councillor Whitman has written to me that the proposed development goes against the wishes of only some local residents. I talk to a lot of people and have yet to find anyone enthusiastic about the further strip-malling of our community. Nobody is calling for more drive-thrus, as far as I can tell. Many of us have chosen to live here because of the unique character of the place, and this proposal is an attack on that unique nature.

4) Both the Chamber of Commerce and the Stewardship Association are united in their opposition to the proposed development. The fact that business interests and environmentalists are working hand-in-hand to oppose the development speaks to a broad consensus.

5) Finally, if it goes ahead, the development will strike a serious blow to active transportation and the creation of a pedestrian-friendly community. The Crossroads has the potential to be a pedestrian-friendly community, but this proposal will greatly hinder any hopes of that becoming a reality. As it stands, pedestrian and cycling links are poor — which is particularly sad if one considers the proximity of the old rail line. Try going to Otis and Clementine’s for a coffee and then making your way to the Superstore for groceries. Even though these businesses are in physical proximity, the experience is not one you will want to repeat — particularly in winter. We need to develop active transportation routes within the community, not build more drive-thrus.

Given these factors, as well as those raised by others who have written to you, I strongly urge you to not approve the development as it now stands.


Philip Moscovitch
Glen Margaret

More farms in NS

November 6, 2012   3:32 pm

Filed under: Blog — Tags: , , — Phil @ 3:32 pm

Recently released numbers from the Census of Agriculture show that the number of farms across the country is down over the last five years. Every province saw a decline — except Nova Scotia, which saw a modest increase.

When I mentioned this to my friend Av Singh, who is a small farm and organics consultant, he said he wondered how much of that increase he was responsible for. That’s because Av deals with a lot of folks who do small-scale farming, but don’t see themselves as “real” farmers.

He tells them they are indeed real farmers — in fact, that the future of farming may depend more on people like them than on large, centralized operations — and he encourages them to take advantage of the benefits that come with registering your farming operation.

So is the number of farms up in Nova Scotia? Or are there just more people reporting farm income? I looked at this question in a recent article for the FCC Express. Here’s the piece:

Number of Nova Scotia farms increasing

by Philip Moscovitch

Nova Scotia is the only province that saw its number of farms increase between 2006 and 2011.

According to Statistics Canada’s most recent Census of Agriculture, the number increased by 2.9 per cent, to 3,905. Nationally, over the same five years, the number of farms decreased by just over 10 per cent.

But nobody knows whether there are a lot more farmers, or just better reporting. Department of Agriculture spokesperson Adele Poirier says that more small farms have registered, and that some mink farms were missed in the 2006 census.

“We’re not saying the number of farms hasn’t increased, but we don’t know if it has increased as much as the numbers would indicate,” she says.

Organics and small farm consultant Av Singh says he suspects that more farmers are registering their operations — and that’s good for agriculture in the province.

“We had a strong push to have more farmers register,” Singh says. “I think many food producers were seeing themselves as hobby farmers or boutique farmers, but they are recognizing that they have a valuable role to play in terms of food production, food security, and food sovereignty.”

While Singh suspects much of the increase in farm numbers comes from registrations, he also points out that the province is successfully attracting new farmers too.

“I think we are getting farmers from Germany, from the U.K., and from the U.S.,” he says. “But I think we can do a better job in defining the kinds of farmers we want to attract and be more strategic in how we attract new farmers in a way that can be synergistic to Nova Scotia agriculture.”

Fraser Hunter, an organic dairy farmer who came to Nova Scotia from the United Kingdom, calls the province “the land of milk and honey,” saying, “we can produce milk and honey and a lot more too.”

Having relatively low land prices compared to other jurisdictions, as well as Canada’s largest number of farmers’ markets per capita (Singh says there are about 50) doesn’t hurt either.

Bryan Dyck and Shannon Jones met while working on farms near Guelph, Ont., but wound up settling down on 15 acres in northern Nova Scotia, where they have a mixed vegetable farm.

“One reason that coming to Nova Scotia was really attractive to us as farmers is that land is much more affordable here than in southern Ontario,” says Dyck. “We paid $55,000 for 15 acres, and we are less than an hour from Moncton. You can’t find prices like that anywhere in Ontario close to a fairly large city.”

Singh says farmers in Nova Scotia tend to support rather than compete with each other — and that encourages more people to take up agriculture.

“Other farmers are very supportive and encouraging,” Dyck says. “There are middle-aged farmers who are a great resource.”

While we may not know exactly how many new farms there are in Nova Scotia, it’s clear the numbers are not decreasing. And Singh thinks the count may go up quite a bit more for the next census.

“The ThinkFarm push by the Department of Agriculture to encourage new farmers has definitely increased awareness of the benefits of registering as a farm,” Singh says. “But I still think there’s some work to do out there, and the numbers may go up some more.”

God and assholes

October 3, 2012   1:09 pm

Filed under: Blog — Tags: , , , — Phil @ 1:09 pm

No, I’m not writing about fundamentalism.

Yesterday, on CBC Radio’s Q, Jian Ghomeshi interviewed linguist Geoffrey Nunberg on his new book, Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years.

The interview reminded me of an incident from my days as a student at John Abbott College, so I wrote to the show. The email was Q’s letter of the day today. (I look forward to cashing the fat cheque that comes with the honour.)

Some people have asked to see the letter, so here it is:

Your conversation on assholeism reminded me of a CEGEP philosophy class, in which we were discussing the ontological argument for the existence of God. Part of the discussion revolved around the notion of perfection. One student interjected that perfection was not necessarily good, because someone could be “a perfect asshole.”

The instructor — who was a larger-than-life character both in terms of his physical and intellectual presence — immediately responded that he thought “a perfectly functioning asshole could be a great source of pleasure.”

Philip Moscovitch
Glen Margaret, NS

Raising the bar in Hammonds Plains?

August 8, 2012   8:11 am

Filed under: Blog,Portfolio,Radio — Tags: , , , — Phil @ 8:11 am

I was on Information Morning recently, talking about changes to the business culture of the Hammonds Plains Road.

Over the last decade, I’ve watched as the Hammonds Plains Road, in the western part of the Halifax Regional Municipality, has changed from semi-rural to sprawling suburban. The area is deceptive to drive through. There’s one main artery (which residents consider woefully narrow to serve their needs) and when you travel along it, you could well think you’re on any semi-rural secondary road. You pass a school, a couple of gas stations, a few small strip malls.

As you get closer to Bedford, it’s more clearly suburban — four-pad hockey arena, RIM customer service building, more visible density. But for much of the road, all you see on either side is trees and spaced-apart homes — with little indication that beyond them lie miles and miles of classic suburban sprawl: twisty subdivision roads, cul-de-sacs, and those generic subdivision names that could be anywhere. People identify where they live by their subdivision. You don’t live in Hammonds Plains, you live in White Hills (located in one of the oldest Black settlements in the province), Kingswood, Highland Park, Voyageur Lakes, and so on.

I’m fascinated by one particular spot on the road. For years it housed a convenience store called Chrissy’s Trading Post. Chrissy’s eventually closed, and since then a succession of pizza places have come and gone — each seemingly identical to the last. I keep wondering what the new business owners think is going to be different for them.

Farther up the road, there was a long-standing bakery called M&S Foods. It closed down a year or so ago, and we watched as somebody sunk a huge amount of money into renovating the place. The new business is called Edible Matters, and it finally opened in July. It’s more of a high-end cafe/eat-in/take-out kind of place. Sandwiches will run you over ten bucks, and you can buy items like homemade chicken stock and preserves to take home. I wondered if they stood a hope in hell of making it here, but also if the business was on the leading edge of a trend of more urban-style boutique-type businesses coming to Hammonds Plains. There’s a small cluster of them now, and I headed out to interview a couple of the owners, including Chris Burton of Edible Matters.

You can listen to the results here, on the website for CBC Radio’s Information Morning.

Little Free Library

July 25, 2012   11:42 am

Filed under: Blog,Radio — Tags: , , , — Phil @ 11:42 am
Diane Buckle

Diane Buckle and her Little Free Library

Diane Buckle of Indian Harbour, Nova Scotia, is steward of the province’s first Little Free Library. I first noticed it while driving by on the way to Peggy’s Cove, so I stopped in to chat with Diane about it.

The Little Free Library movement started in Wisconsin and has now gone international. Diane’s library (#1,955) opened in June. It was built for her as a birthday present by her husband, Jim.

I spoke with Diane about the library for Information Morning on CBC Radio, and you can listen to the interview here.

School library cuts hit hard

May 15, 2012   2:34 pm

Filed under: Blog — Tags: , , , , — Phil @ 2:34 pm

This post has been updated. The librarian I refer to below is Jennifer Calder, and she’s fine with me using her name. She says, “I’m happy to know I convey my passion for what I’m doing.”

If you’ve ever met me, you probably know I care a lot about libraries. I am chair of the Halifax Regional Library Board, and generally a champion of all things library-related.

So it was with some shock that I (like other Nova Scotians) learned that the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board planned to cut costs by getting rid of all its librarians and library technicians. My first thought was that this was the most backward and least imaginative response possible.

The board has since (with prodding from the provincial government) gone back on its decision. But it is still cutting 21.2 full-time positions (leaving 16.9) . That’s still a huge loss.

I do writing workshops for kids throughout the province, and I have been in a lot of school libraries. To be honest, a lot of them are pretty pathetic. I used to volunteer in an elementary school library, and I felt really conflicted about it. On the one hand, I was a good person for the job. On the other, I always felt that the kids deserved a real librarian (or at least library tech) instead of a well-meaning volunteer like me.

The cuts the Chignecto Board is making really hit home for me last week when I was visiting a small school in the northern part of Nova Scotia. There was a young librarian there (she splits her time between two schools) and she was a real dynamo: up on technology, widely read, enthusiastic. She’d taken a library in which — are you ready for this — none of the books had been properly catalogued, and turned it into an inviting place to read, study and borrow.

She will probably lose her job in this round of cuts, and her students will be the worse off for it. The whole thing makes me sad and angry at the same time. The Internet will not replace a good librarian. But that’s an argument for another time.

School bus problem worsens

   1:33 pm

Filed under: Blog — Tags: , , , — Phil @ 1:33 pm

A few months back, I wrote a piece for OpenFile Halifax on drivers passing school buses while their red lights are flashing.

When the lights are flashing, kids are getting on or off the bus, so it’s obviously an extremely dangerous practice. In the video above, you’ll hear a school bus driver and manager talking about the problem, as well as a mother who watched as her son was nearly cut down by a car zooming past the bus. (Full disclosure: the mother and child are my partner and son.)

I was shocked when I first heard this was a problem, and I naively hoped it might get better. But I ran into Sharalyn Boudreau — she’s the bus driver in the video — last week, and she told me that the problem has become a lot worse. It boggles my mind. I just hope nobody gets killed.

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