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Information about Arsenic in Cigarette Smoke


Updated September 08, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Information about Arsenic in Cigarette Smoke

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What arsenic is and where it comes from:

Arsenic is a naturally occurring, poisonous element found in the soil. Arsenic may be found alone as a metal, or more commonly as a metal-like compound.

The two forms of arsenic compounds:

  • Organic arsenic is formed when arsenic combines with carbon and hydrogen.
  • Inorganic arsenic occurs when arsenic combines with elements such as oxygen, chlorine and sulfur.
Organic arsenic is less toxic than inorganic arsenic, and accounts for most of the arsenic humans are exposed to, primarily through food and water. Inorganic arsenic is a byproduct of smelting metals and was used in the past in chemicals that pressure-treated wood for outdoor use, though this has been phased out in recent years.

The toxicity of arsenic:

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified arsenic as being carcinogenic to humans. Inorganic arsenic has been linked to several cancers, including:

Common sources of arsenic exposure:

  • Food: The average American adult takes in 50 milligrams of arsenic each day, with 80 percent of it coming from meat, fish and poultry. Some wines also contain noticeable levels of arsenic due to pesticides used in farming.
  • Drinking water: Arsenic seeps into well water primarily via bedrock. Groundwater is sometimes contaminated by runoff from soil containing arsenic.
  • Cigarette smoke: Arsenic-containing pesticides used in tobacco farming persist in small quantities in cigarette smoke.

Arsenic in cigarette smoke:

Inorganic arsenic is present in mainstream tobacco smoke and presumably in sidestream smoke as well. According to a report from the California Air Resources Board and the Department of Health Services, smokers breathe an estimated 0.8 to 2.4 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per pack of cigarettes, with approximately 40 percent of it being deposited in the respiratory tract.

While research has yet to define the specific risks associated with arsenic in cigarette smoke, it's safe to say that inhaling this toxic chemical compound is hazardous to human health.

More on the chemicals in cigarette smoke:

Cigarette smoke is a toxic cocktail of over 7,000 chemicals including 250 poisonous and 70 carcinogenic compounds.


Arsenic. 20 November, 2007. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry - U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Overall Evaluations of Carcinogenicity to Humans. 29 November, 2007. International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Inorganic Arsenic. May, 1990. California Air Resources Board and Department of Health Services.

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