Updated 03 May 2019

Every breath you take

A breathalyser to check if you’re a secret smoker? It’s called a Smokerlyzer, and Health24 got their hands on one.

You’re not likely to be asked to blow into such a device at a roadblock, but it certainly exists: it’s called a Smokerlyzer, and we got our hands on one.

“Smokerlyzer” is a brand name for a device that measures the amount of toxic carbon monoxide (CO) gas in exhaled breath. The level indicates just how bad your smoking habit is: as you puff into it, the Smokerlyzer’s display flashes green (showing normal, negligible CO levels) typical of the exhalations of true non-smokers, but glows sickly yellow for occasional smokers and bright, disastrous red for smokers with a serious habit.

The anti-tobacco warriors at Nicorette, who use the Smokerlyzer as a tool to educate smokers, trustingly lent me one of these (not inexpensive) tools for a few days.

My plan was to take it out on the town to terrorise a few smokers into quitting, and show just how badly they poison the environment for the rest of us.

Meet the suicide gas
Carbon monoxide isn’t the only toxin in cigarette smoke, of course: there are about 4000, including 600 carcinogens. But never mind all those for the moment: CO is quite disturbing enough all on its own.

This nasty stuff is sometimes called “the suicide gas”, because it’s what many people (including, most famously, Sylvia Plath) have used to kill themselves - by putting their heads into gas stoves or breathing car exhaust fumes in closed garages.*

Millions more have died from accidental inhalation; CO has claimed more lives than any other poison in history.

What CO does to the body
Red blood cells transport the oxygen you inhale, from your lungs to tissues throughout the body. But carbon monoxide molecules attach themselves very readily to red blood cells, displacing the life-giving oxygen molecules. The result is that your tissues become “suffocated”, or oxygen-starved.

With each drag you take on a cigarette (the deeper the drag, the greater the effect), you pull CO into your body, leaving less space for the oxygen it needs.

An omnipresent poison
CO is extremely toxic in high doses, but it’s also present in non-lethal yet still unhealthy levels in polluted air; just about whenever we burn a fuel, from wood to petroleum, we also produce this gas. City dwellers suck it in on a daily basis with the traffic fumes.

And it’s not just the mean streets we need worry about. The iconic image of environmental pollution is a factory smoke-stack belching out dark, noxious clouds, but though visually less dramatic, indoor air pollution can be even more serious in terms of direct health impacts. Outdoor pollutants seep inside buildings and vehicles and, especially in winter when we tend to batten down the hatches, can get trapped there. Add environmental tobacco smoke, and the pollutant levels indoors quickly rival or exceed those of the urban exterior.

These lower levels of CO exposure, especially if experienced chronically, can cause flu-like symptoms like headache, dizziness and nausea. We’re not exactly sure what the health impact may be in the long term, but given the devastating effects of higher, acute levels, it can’t be good. Scientists have speculated that low-level chronic CO exposure may contribute various conditions, from heart problems and auto-immune disease to depression and cognitive difficulties.

Out on the town with Smokerlyzer
I set off excitedly into the smokey bowels of Cape Town with my borrowed Smokerlyzer, hoping it would highlight as never before that not only were smokers lousing up their own lungs with toxins like CO (no one needs convincing about that any more), but their immediate environments too (there are still plenty of passive-smoking denialists).

I endured a couple of evenings in moderately smokey venues, and a few hours slumming it on the smokers’ balcony, but I couldn’t get my CO reading out of the green “safe” zone. It wasn’t nearly as easy as I’d thought it would be to do a “passive smoke crawl”: although there are still places contravening the current smoking laws, most restaurants do at least partially segregate smokers, and in general ventilation is better in venues across the board.

My next series of experiments were more eventful: I got stuck for 45 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic and my CO level shot up from a safe green 3-4ppm (parts per million; 1-6 is expected for a non-smoker), to a scarlet 23 (within the range expected for a frequent smoker).

Then, after half an hour walking around the underground parking lot of my local mall, I scored 29 ppm (typical of an “addicted smoker”), and it took about 8 hours for my CO level to get back down into the green zone. I also needed that time to recover from the headache and slight nausea I’d acquired. Anything for science.

Reviewing the results
Let us keep in mind that the experiments with my friend the Smokerlyzer were not conducted under strict laboratory conditions. (For one thing, it’s very stressful and tedious for an anti-tobacco activist to endure long stretches on the smokers’ side of the divide, and a certain therapeutic amount of alcohol was necessary to help the process along.)

I’m not sure why my breath CO didn’t go up as a result of exposure to second-hand smoke, and why it did rise so dramatically when exposed to exhaust fumes. There may have been sufficient ventilation in the smoking venues so that my body managed to get its CO level back down to a level that didn’t show up on the Smokerlyzer. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t exposed to CO on those occasions, nor that passive smoking is harmless.

The most important result was, after all, the one I was really after: raising awareness about the human body and its often toxic environment. I’m not sure I won any immediate converts over to the non-smoker camp during my trawl of Cape Town’s smoking zone, but the hard-working Smokerlyzer certainly made an impression on many whose faces it infused with red light.

Testing devices and numerical results are valuable because they supplement the sensitive gadgetry of our own bodies that we so often stubbornly ignore. But anyone who has spent time stuck in the fug of rush hour traffic, or a long evening indoors with heavy tobacco smoke, doesn’t really need air monitoring devices and a list of scientific studies to know they aren’t doing their health any favours.

(- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealthEditor, Health24, May 2009)

*There are fewer deaths from these sources now: domestic gas composition has been changed to include less carbon monoxide, and catalytic converters have reduced the amount of CO in car exhaust.


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