SHS harm denier claims “H2O is the main component of tobacco smoke ..”

The following comment was submitted by harleyrider1978,, on 2010/01/24 at 5:01 pm. I’m allowing it so that I can address a blatant distortion in it, even though harleyrider1978 hasn’t yet identified himself to me, even privately, as requested.

I reproduce the entire comment but I want to focus on one assertion to emphasize how SHS harm deniers play fast and loose with the facts.

I would truly like to see just one anti-smoking site post the true chemical composition of second hand smoke/environmental smoke rather than just the 3% that contains those supposed 4000 chemicals you so proudly claim everywhere at all the other smoke free websites….simply put H2O is the main component of tobacco smoke at over 90%.
You might also show the toxicology comparisons of those nanograms and femptograms that osha did to show just how insignificant shs/ets truly is.

After receiving the above dismissive comment I checked the 679 page U.S. Surgeon General’s 1989 Report Reducing the Health Consequences of Smoking: 25 Years Of Progress.

Chapter 2, from pages 33 – 169, is titled Advances in Knowledge of the Health Consequences of Smoking, and on page 79 is a section The Physicochemical Nature of Tobacco, dealing with the actual chemical makeup of the constituents in both mainstream smoke inhaled by the smoker and the sidestream smoke (SHS) inhaled by the exposed nonsmoker.

It notes: “Today, the estimated number of known compounds in tobacco smoke exceeds 4,000, including some that are pharmacologically active, toxic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic (US DHEW 1979; US DHHS 1983).

On the following page is a detailed figure showing the composition of cigarette mainstream smoke, i.e. that inhaled by the smoker, reproduced below (please click the figure to enlarge). The figure shows four vertical bars, the second vertical bar representing the main chemical constituents of MS smoke, labelled WHOLE SMOKE, dominated by N2 (nitrogen) ~62% by weight, and O2 (oxygen) ~13% by weight.

Mainstream smoke composition, U.S. Surgeon General's Report, 1989, Fig. 13, page 80.
Click figure above to enlarge.

The 4.5% at the top of this symbolic cigarette is in the “TPM (Wet)” category, the main components of which are shown in the first vertical bar. Of that 4.5% only about 16% is WATER (H2O), i.e. only about 0.7% of the total.
The main constituents in the “VAPOR PHASE,” which constitutes 13.5% of the total, is shown in the third vertical bar. Only 10% of that is H2O by weight, i.e. about 1.35% of the total is water. So according to this analysis the amount of H2O in the mainstream smoke inhaled by a smoker is only about 2% TOTAL (0.7% Wet + 1.35% Vapor Phase), and NOT the “over 90%” alleged by harleyrider1978.

If I’m wrong, please correct me. If I’m right, harleyrider1978 owes me an apology (and an ID).

Addenda Feb. 28, 2010:

Just to address the issue of 4,000 chemicals which have been identified in tobacco smoke. The number of those which are human carcinogens has grown over the years as evidence on them has accumulated. For example, the following relevant section can be found on page 8 of National Toxicology Program Final Report on Carcinogens – Environmental Tobacco Smoke, December 2 – 3, 1998:

One half, or more (by weight), of the smoke generated by a lit cigarette is SS emitted from the smoldering cigarette (U.S. EPA 1992). SS and MS contain many of the same chemical constituents because they originate from similar processes. ETS contains more than 4,000 chemicals. Among these, at least 200 are toxic and 43 were known carcinogens as identified in the 1992 EPA review. Approximately 400 compounds have been quantified in both MS and SS smoke. Although many constituents of MS and SS are the same, their emission rates vary as shown in Table 1-1 (U.S. EPA 1992).

In the most recent USSG Report on SHS, released in 2006, is the following on page 12 of the pdf Report :

Chapter 2. Toxicology of Secondhand Smoke Evidence of Carcinogenic Effects from Secondhand Smoke Exposure
1. More than 50 carcinogens have been identified in sidestream and secondhand smoke.

Table 2.1 of the Report on pages 31-32 lists over 30 of them, starting with Acrylonitrile and ending with radioactive Polonium-210:

8 Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
8 N-Nitrosamines
3 Aromatic amines
2 Aldehydes
5 Miscellaneous organics, and
6 Inorganic compounds

7 responses to “SHS harm denier claims “H2O is the main component of tobacco smoke ..”

  1. Mogasp, I believe HarleyRiders base information came from “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains” on pages 100/101. The graph you refer to is the same one I used as the source for my statement there as follows:


    The Chemistry of Secondary Smoke

    As noted earlier in the chapter on Language, about 90% of secondary smoke is composed of water and ordinary air with a slight excess of carbon dioxide. Another 4% is carbon monoxide, a gas that can act as a poison when in sufficient quantity by reducing the amount of oxygen your red blood cells can carry. The last 6% contains the rest of the 4,000 or so chemicals supposedly to be found in smoke… but found, obviously, in very small quantities (1989 Report of the Surgeon General p. 80).

    Most of these chemicals can only be found in quantities measured in nanograms, picograms and femtograms. Many cannot even be detected in these amounts: their presence is simply theorized rather than measured. To bring those quantities into a real world perspective, take a saltshaker and shake out a few grains of salt. A single grain of that salt will weigh in the ballpark of 100 million picograms! (Allen Blackman. Chemistry Magazine 10/08/01).

    To refer back to our earlier example of arsenic, a nonsmoker would have to work with a smoker 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for well over a hundred years to be exposed to a quantity of arsenic equal to one grain of salt. While a lot of waitresses and bartenders may feel as if they’ve worked a hundred years at their jobs, there really aren’t too many who actually have.


    {Note: The “Chemistry Magazine” reference is slightly incorrect. Allan was properly spelled “Allan” and the original passage was: “One of the most toxic substances on planet earth is palytoxin. … it has been estimated that as little as four micrograms may be enough to kill a human. To give you some idea of what a truly tiny amount this is, a grain of salt weighs about one hundred micrograms.” 100 micrograms translates to one hundred million picograms. So Blackman was saying that it would take FOUR HUNDRED MILLION picograms of “one of the most toxic substances on earth” to kill someone. Yet Antismokers get all hot and bothered about chemicals inhaled from ETS in quantities measured in quantities about a million times smaller.

    In any event, you can see that Harley somewhat misquoted the material from Brains, but it was not that far off the mark. He should have said, “As noted earlier in the chapter on Language, about 90% of secondary smoke is composed of water and ordinary air with a slight excess of carbon dioxide. Another 4% is carbon monoxide, ” but he was probably trying to keep his posting short out of consideration for your readers.

    Of course it’s also possible that my own interpretation of that graph was incorrect… but I don’t think so. If it was however, I’d appreciate your correction.

    Michael J. McFadden,
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

    • Harley’s quote was COMPLETELY off the mark! Just because he got the “90%” figure right does not let him off the hook for claiming this was WATER. In future, I’m not going to be able to take anything from harleyrider at face value because I will never know how carefully he’s checked his facts, if at all. To my mind, that is paramount.
      I found the actual reference on page 67 of your book, Antismokers Brains. It would have been helpful if you’d quoted the percentages of each listed in the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1989 Report: Reducing the Health Consequences of Smoking – 25 Years of Progress. Here it is for reference (expressed as % of total weight):

      N2 = ~62%
      O2 = ~13%
      CO2 = 13.5 x 80% = 10.8%
      H2O (from my calculation) = 2%
      Total ~88%, which is close to your 90%.

      That leaves 10% which includes chemicals which are toxic, carcinogens, co-carcinogens, suspected carcinogens, and tumor promoters. [ref. Table 8, page 89 printed version, USSG 1989 Report.]

      I’m not suggesting that if the average healthy nonsmoker inhales small amounts of any of these substances they’ll immediately keel over but I think the effect is cumulative. And in the case of human carcinogens, I’ve been persuaded that the fourth major conclusion in the 2006 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on SHS – “The scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke” – is correct. [Major Conclusions: Executive Summary, page 9.]

      I’m also convinced of the serious short-term and potentially fatal effects of SHS in the case of highly smoke-sensitive asthmatics, for example. I know of several asthmatics who can back up the claim of serious adverse ill-effects from their own personal experience.

      There’s also the reported death of a passenger, Dr. Abid M. Hanson, on an Olympic Airways flight from Cairo to the U.S. attributed to smoking in the cabin leading to a successful lawsuit against the airline. Dr. Hanson had a “history of recurrent anaphylactic reactions” to SHS and had a doctor’s letter to that effect. After changing planes in Athens, Dr. Hanson found himself in the smoking section on a full flight, and pleas to a flight attendant to exchange seats were refused. He died on that flight despite being given emergency treatment as a direct result of SHS exposure. A review of the case can be found at Olympic Airways v. Husain.

  2. So, I forgot to add in ordinary air in the statement my bad…… still comes to 90% or more of what shs/ets amounts too!
    When we see that atmospheric air is made up of
    78% nitrogen/shs 63% and oxygen at 21%/shs/ets at 13% and h20 at 10% it still equals the near 90% mark of water vapor and ordinary air. These percentages can be even higher depending on atmospheric conditions both outside and indoors where smoking takes place as the mixture quickly disperses into moisture laden air.
    In all experiments done on tobacco smoke the major components will always be ordinary air and h2o with co2………..always and the low percentage of what constitutes these 4000 chemicals is so low they arent even worth mention. Osha and EPA both define environmental tobacco smoke as class 3 irritant.
    The major source of trouble for smokers is benzene but benzene is a natural by product of any burning organic material and is a very high concentration in forest fires and volcanoes however, concentrations in the vapor phase of the drag on a cig are of such a low amount its direct effect if it has an effect will take decades upon decades of smoking to even possibly produce any harm. As the toxicologists cant even say that direct smoking causes cancer nor can they connect the end points to prove causation.Which leaes the second hand smoke myth just what it is a MYTH.
    The only supposed evidence is meta-analysis studies that show at a 95 ci that smoking can cause lung cancer in very low numbers,but when you look at cross sectional views of other countries such as japan or greece these meta numbers dont add up against known numbers of smokers by population….

    • harleyrider1978: You only admit grudgingly that your original statement was completely wrong and don’t offer any apology for wasting my time in researching this. And you throw a lot more sand in the reader’s face with additional information you don’t bother to reference. In short, you are an unreliable resource who cannot admit when you err. Please don’t bother to submit comments to this blog again: they will not be approved.

  3. Just Google harleyrider1978. You’ll find his cut and paste spam all over the web. Much of what he posts is just old tobacco company propaganda that big tobaccco no longer even supports. There’s no use debating with him, he’s wrong and he knows it.

    • Pete, I disagree with you only in your conclusion that harleyrider knows he’s wrong. Unfortunately, he clearly isn’t willing to admit when he makes gross errors, and doesn’t seem fazed by it.

  4. Mogasp, let me respond to the SG’s opinion about the evidence in his Report. He said, “The scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.”

    I would agree in one sense only, and to make that sense clear, please allow me to quote from page 330 of “Brains” :

    Let us suppose that I earn $500,000 a year as a fast-talking lawyer. I then go on to run for public office, and to boost my image I proclaim that I believe in the importance of giving to those less fortunate. I adopt an earnest and heartfelt look and state that I give regularly to both organized charity and to the poor and homeless I encounter on the streets. I go on to emphasize that I maintain my giving year in and year out, no matter what my financial situation or pressures may be, and that I will carry similar dedication and selflessness to my career as an elected official.

    In truth, my “regular contributions” consist of my dropping a shiny new penny into a Salvation Army bucket each Christmas, and then tossing a somewhat grubbier one at a homeless guy who’s sleeping under a blanket …

    Did I tell a lie with my above proclamation? Technically, no… I do contribute regularly, and I said nothing about the amount. However anyone in their right minds and with a sense of fairness would certainly argue that I had not been truthful.

    I do not believe the SG was being truthful in using the word “risk.” The same things could be said about such things as allowing a child outside in daytime – – sitting in a restaurant where people drink alcoholic drinks – – or cooking a healthy vegetarian meal for your family over a gas stove –

    In all four cases (smoke, sun, alcohol, cooking) the word “risk” would make sense for extreme exposures. It even might make some sense when one talks about moderate exposures. But it is misleading, and inflammatory, to use the word for very small exposures.

    People look to the SG, the CDC, and the EPA to provide them with real information that is comparable to the things they understand in everyday life using the everyday meanings of the words that are used. I believe strongly, and presented a strong argument in Brains in support, that language has been deliberately misused in a way that harms people and our social tissue.

    Additional note re Harley and Pete: Will you hold Pete to the same exacting standard as Harley? Or can Pete show that “Much” of what Harley posts “is just old tobacco company propaganda”?

    Michael J. McFadden,
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers Brains”

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