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.”


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.

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.

HRM drivers running bus lights

January 2, 2012   2:12 pm

Filed under: Blog,Portfolio — Tags: , , , — Phil @ 2:12 pm

I have a story at OpenFile Halifax today about the spate of drivers passing school buses while their red lights are flashing.

I was shocked when bus driver Sharalyn Boudreau first told me this was a problem, and even more shocked when I realized how prevalent it was.

My own son (who is in the piece) was nearly hit by a school bus a couple of years ago, but I thought it was a very rare and isolated incident. Apparently not.

Soon after I completed this piece, I was slowing down for a school bus on the St. Margaret’s Bay Road, near the Armdale Roundabout, when the car in front of me shot ahead and passed it as the red lights came on.

The story at OpenFile is an audio slideshow. I’ve also included a map of the worst areas in HRM, and a transcript of the audio.

Search for Boundary Rock

June 16, 2011   2:17 pm

Filed under: Blog,Portfolio,Radio — Tags: , , , , , — Phil @ 2:17 pm

How does a massive rock disappear?

The Boundary Rock was once a southwestern Nova Scotia landmark. Hunters and fishermen had their picture taken by (and on) it. It even appeared on a postcard. But sometime over the last century, its precise location seems to have dropped out of our collective memory.

In my latest radio documentary, The Search for Boundary Rock, I join Paul Maybee and a group of four others, as we head into the remote Tobeatic Wilderness area for a week. Our goal: to find the rock and drag it back into history. This is Paul’s third attempt. But this time, he’s far better prepared than he’s ever been. With the help of experienced trekkers — including Bob Johnston of New Minas, who has spent 10 years researching the Boundary Rock — Paul is convinced we can find it.

The documentary first aired on CBC Radio’s Maritime Magazine (now called Atlantic Voice) in June 2011. You can listen to it here.


Below is a selection of my photos from the trip. Click anywhere to be taken to the full set on Flickr.

Daisy Dreamer

December 3, 2010   7:45 pm

Filed under: Magazines,Portfolio — Tags: , , , — Phil @ 7:45 pm
Daisy Dreamer is a 9-year-old girl with a magic ballcap that lets her turn into any animal she wants! I’ve been writing her adventures for Chickadee magazine for the last decade. Here is one of my favourite stories, courtesy Owlkids. Artwork is by Gabriel Morrissette.

Young Lego Programmers

   7:40 pm

Filed under: Blog,Portfolio — Phil @ 7:40 pm

Young Lego programmers

A short radio piece on a group of elementary school students preparing to head to the First Lego League world championships. I loved these kids.

Christmas for a Crowd

   7:37 pm

Filed under: Blog,Portfolio — Phil @ 7:37 pm
Story from the December, 2010 issue of Reader’s Digest on how the Nova Scotia village of Tatamagouche celebrates Christmas: with a huge dinner for 400. Read it here.