I have a pair of survivors living in a trailer (18-wheeler's trailer) and they have found about 3 pounds of cigarette butts and have decided to burn them for warmth. What would happen to these two? (Assume that asphyxiation is not a worry)

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    $\begingroup$ Oh, man! The only thing they have to burn are cigarette butts? That's a better-than-average apocalypse! $\endgroup$ – JBH May 18 '19 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ Cigarette filters don't burn without help. You need some elaborate setup of pumping air, or some sort of accelerant. Source: I used to smoke cigarettes. I can assure you that it is hard to set a cigarette filter on fire. (Moreover, some (maybe even most) modern cigarettes tend to be self-extinguishing -- they won't burn if not puffed. Lighting a cigarette [butt] without puffing is not that easy.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 19 '19 at 17:16

Cigarette butts are composed of tobacco (which is usually highly treated and contains toxic additives), wrapping paper, and cellulose-acetate filters. The amount of each will vary depending on brand/product, if the cigarette has a filter at all, and how far down the smoker puffed before tossing the butt.

The filters from one pack of cigarettes (20) weigh .12 oz. So it will take 8,000 cigarettes to create 3 lbs of filters. (Source: Clean Virginia Waterways) In actuality, the number of butts in 3 lbs will be much lower. Residues, paper, and unburned tobacco will increase the weight.

In a study by Kathleen M. Register ("Underwater Naturalist" Bulletin of the American Littoral Society, Volume 25, Number 2, August 2000) the Ocean Conservancy ran experiments on the planktonic animal Daphnia magna (aka water flea). They found that cigarette butts were quite toxic to them. The most dangerous portion was the leftover tobacco itself. The used filters were also acutely toxic (unused filters still were toxic but at much lower rates). Many detrimental results occurred at concentrations of one butt per liter of water.

As discussed by Novotny, Lum, Smith, Wang, and Barnes (Cigarettes Butts and the Case for an Environmental Policy on Hazardous Cigarette Waste, Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2009 May), cigarette butts form a significant environmental danger.

Cellulose acetate is photodegradable but not bio-degradable. Although ultraviolet rays from the sun will eventually break the filter into smaller pieces under ideal environmental conditions, the source material never disappears; it essentially becomes diluted in water or soil.

The filters contain trapped tar and nicotine and are toxic to marine life.

A 2006 laboratory study found that cigarette butts were found to be acutely toxic to a freshwater cladoceran organism and a marine bacteria (microtox) and that the main cause of toxicity was attributed to nicotine and ethylphenol in the leachates from cigarette butts. A 1997 report from the Rhode Island Department of Health reported 146 cases of cigarette butt ingestion among children < 6 years old; of these, approximately one-third displayed transient nicotine toxicity.

Cigarette filters are certainly not benign. In addition to never fully biodegrading, they can cause direct harm, though we do not have much data on the details. From Pauly, Mepani, Lesses, Cummings, and Streck (Cigarettes with defective filters marketed for 40 years: what Philip Morris never told smokers, Tobacco Control 2002)

Microscopically, these fibres are Y shaped and contain the delustrant titanium dioxide. The fibres are made of cellulose acetate, a synthetic plastic-like substance used commonly for photographic films. A plasticiser, triacetin (glycerol triacetate), is applied to bond the fibres.

Additionally, fibers can break off during smoking. The fibers can contain glass or even asbestos.

The tobacco industry has been negligent in not performing toxicological examinations and other studies to assess the human health risks associated with regularly ingesting and inhaling non-degradable, toxin coated cellulose acetate fragments and carbon microparticles and possibly other components that are released from conventional cigarette filters during normal smoking. The rationale for harm assessment is supported by the results of consumer surveys that have shown that the ingestion or inhalation of cigarette filter fibres are a health concern to nearly all smokers.

Let's turn to what happens when cigarette butts are burned. While I was unable to find direct data, we might consider that this is similar to using a hookah, which is a bowl in which people heat a mix of around 30% tobacco with flavorings. Thirty percent is a reasonable estimate for the tobacco in a pile of cigarette butts. A "bowl" holds 10-30 grams (0.022-0.066 lbs) of hookah tobacco, a tiny fraction of your 3 lb stash.

The average hookah session is about an hour and is the equivalent of smoking 100 cigarettes. Most effects are long-term and would be cumulative.

Evidence suggests that it can increase the risk of getting lung cancer, causing heart problems and other long-term lung conditions.

And all the general risks of cigarettes apply.

Even in the short-term, after just a few cigarettes (a fraction of what your folks are using), the Center for Substance Abuse Research reports Short-Term Effects of Smoking include:

  • Addiction to nicotine
  • Damage to the respiratory system
  • Decreased lung capacity
  • Chronic cough
  • Bronchitis, asthma
  • Bad breath; bad taste in mouth
  • Smelly hair and clothes
  • Yellow or brown stains on teeth
  • Increased likelihood of drug use and risky behavior
  • Death from fire - the #1 cause of death from fire is smoking

Rezk-Hanna, Doering, Robbins, Sarna, Elashoff, and Victor (Acute Effect of Hookah Smoking on Arterial Stiffness and Wave Reflections in Adults Aged 18 to 34 Years of Age, The American Journal of Cardiology, Sept 2018) found that even a single session of hookah smoking "causes an acute increase in arterial stiffness."

An earlier study by Nelson, et al (Acute Effect of Hookah Smoking on the Human Coronary Microcirculation, The American Journal of Cardiology, June 2016) also found substantial changes after just 30 minutes of hookah smoking.

The smoke contains many chemicals that could acutely alter myocardial blood flow. Nicotine delivery with either medicinal nicotine or cigarette smoking increases blood pressure (BP) and heart rate; in young adults, the resultant increase in myocardial oxygen demand (MVO2) is matched by a proportional increase in myocardial blood flow. Hookah smoking also acutely increases BP and heart rate—and thus MVO2—and decreases heart rate variability (HRV), suggesting sympathovagal imbalance. Because burning charcoal is used to heat the tobacco product, hookah smoke also delivers large amounts of charcoal combustion products, including carbon-rich nanoparticles that constitute putative coronary vasoconstrictor stimuli and carbon monoxide (CO), a known coronary vasodilator. Thus, the goal of this study was to determine the net effect of hookah smoking on myocardial blood flow using myocardial contrast echocardiography (MCE) perfusion imaging.

So, yes, your chilly characters could cause substantial damage to their heart and lungs by doing the equivalent of smoking hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of cigarettes in a single session. Also their nervous systems, brain, and more. In addition to the stimulation caused by the nicotine, we have a large variety of toxic chemicals, many of which have not be studied in depth, fibrous shards from the filter media, carbon monoxide (which could be an answer all on its own as it has some nasty health effects for those who survive), risk of fire, and a decent chance of addiction leading to withdrawal symptoms.

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They are likely gonna chill, if nothing else is available for the sake of warming them up.

A cigarette filter, also known as a filter tip, is a component of a cigarette, along with cigarette paper, capsules and adhesives.

The filter may be made from cellulose acetate fibre, paper or activated charcoal (either as a cavity filter or embedded into the cellulose acetate). Macroporous phenol-formaldehyde resins and asbestos have also been used in cigarette filters.

Cellulose acetate is non-toxic, odorless, tasteless, and weakly flammable. It is resistant to weak acids and is largely stable to mineral and fatty oils as well as petroleum.

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    $\begingroup$ Eh, wood can be "weakly flammable". You don't want stuff that'll go up like jet fuel when you're trying to warm yourself up. I suspect that you need a reasonably hot fire in the first place, but once you get em burning they'll go alright. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 18 '19 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime Nitpick: Jet fuel (usually kerosene en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerosene) is not exactly highly flammable either. It doesn't evaporate readily at ambient temperatures, and thus requires either a wick or high temperatures (combustion chamber of a jet or diesel engine) to burn readily. You'd have to go to gasoline if you want something that you can call "easily flammable". $\endgroup$ – cmaster - reinstate monica May 18 '19 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ @cmaster I stand corrected ;-) A better example might have been paper, or cotton wool. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 18 '19 at 21:22

I know everyone above is saying filters do not burn and generally I have found that true. I smoke (bad habit that I’m trying to kick) and I have just sleepily lit a roll up with a swan filter at the wrong end... that filter burnt quicker than paper! Literally burned to a crisp in seconds! Apparently swan filters do burn.

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From the Russian Bureau of Sciences, the simple answer is:

they will bloody well remain cold

As you can see from this scientifically rigorous Bureau sponsored training video, cigarette butts do not actually burn. Not in a way sufficient to make a fire in order to get or keep warm, that is, and no matter how many they heap up.

However, what is abundantly clear from experiments performed by the Bureau's chief scientician, Dr. Toну, is that the following formula:

$$ \biggl( 3\beta + 2187^oK \biggr) \times \Re_a\pmb f30 \times 1\pi\epsilon\tau\rho\alpha=\gt 1S_s $$

when properly balanced, will yield one handy-dandy shank with which your peri-Pockyclyptic survivors can knife a rival gang, steal their stash of charcoal briquets, bring the whole lot back to their trailer where they can keep warm and bbq up a nice hot meal into the bargain!

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