Biological effects of cigarette smoke, wood smoke, and the smoke from plastics: the use of electron spin resonance

Free Radic Biol Med. 1992 Dec;13(6):659-76. doi: 10.1016/0891-5849(92)90040-n.


This review compares and contrasts the chemistry of cigarette smoke, wood smoke, and the smoke from plastics and building materials that is inhaled by persons trapped in fires. Cigarette smoke produces cancer, emphysema, and other diseases after a delay of years. Acute exposure to smoke in a fire can produce a loss of lung function and death after a delay of days or weeks. Tobacco smoke and the smoke inhaled in a burning building have some similarities from a chemical viewpoint. For example, both contain high concentrations of CO and other combustion products. In addition, both contain high concentrations of free radicals, and our laboratory has studied these free radicals, largely by electron spin resonance (ESR) methods, for about 15 years. This article reviews what is known about the radicals present in these different types of smokes and soots and tars and summarizes the evidence that suggests these radicals could be involved in cigarette-induced pathology and smoke-inhalation deaths. The combustion of all organic materials produces radicals, but (with the exception of the smoke from perfluoropolymers) the radicals that are detected by ESR methods (and thus the radicals that would reach the lungs) are not those that arise in the combustion process. Rather they arise from chemical reactions that occur in the smoke itself. Thus, a knowledge of the chemistry of the smoke is necessary to understand the nature of the radicals formed. Even materials as similar as cigarettes and wood (cellulose) produce smoke that contains radicals with very different lifetimes and chemical characteristics, and mechanistic rationales for this are discussed. Cigarette tar contains a semiquinone radical that is infinitely stable and can be directly observed by ESR. Aqueous extracts of cigarette tar, which contain this radical, reduce oxygen to superoxide and thus produce both hydrogen peroxide and the hydroxyl radical. These solutions both oxidize alpha-1-proteinase inhibitor (a1PI) and nick DNA. Because of the potential role of radicals in smoke-inhalation injury, we suggest that antioxidant therapy (such as use of an inhaler for persons brought out of a burning building) might prove efficacious.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • DNA Damage
  • Electron Spin Resonance Spectroscopy*
  • Fires*
  • Free Radicals
  • Humans
  • Plants, Toxic
  • Plastics
  • Smoke Inhalation Injury*
  • Smoke* / adverse effects
  • Tobacco
  • Wood


  • Free Radicals
  • Plastics
  • Smoke