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February 21, 2019

Where There Is Smoke


There is a common saying that where there is smoke there is fire. Those who believe in this saying often stop right there, further analysis is unnecessary because after all “we know” what “they” are up to.

But sometimes it is worth knowing exactly what kind of smoke is being generated from what kind of fire. Those who know how to cook understand the importance of different kinds of fire for preparing foods in different ways to impart texture and flavour.

For example in our society, being one always in a hurry despite wasting so much time; in traffic jams for those who use motorised transport, and watching poorly planted maize plants wither away for those underemployed rural folks; we love grilled meat.

This involves keenly eyeing a chunk of animal hung in a window, asking the fellow holding a meat cleaver whether the meat is soft, the answer to which is obvious, then sitting and complaining after an hour why what was promised in 45 minutes is not ready.

Grilling meat is one of the quickest ways of cooking it, yet it takes some time. Barbecuing meat is an even slower process where indirect heat from a wood fire is used to soften and cook the meat. Needless to say few communities in Kenya still smoke their food given the time it takes and the high level of poverty around.

 Smoking food has the advantage that it preserves food. When food is plentiful, a rare occurrence admittedly, other than refrigeration which requires the support of Kenya Power, smoking is a relatively safe way to store food.

All types of food can be smoked but meats are the ones most commonly treated this way. Smoking works by causing the natural oils in the wood to coat the food being preserved, forming a barrier that prevents bacteria from settling on the food and spoiling it. In addition the low heat causes enough of the water from the food to evaporate further creating an environment that is not hospitable for pathogens that cause food spoilage. Food smoked properly can be preserved for many months.

 The people who came up with the word ‘barbecue’ also came up with the word ‘cannibal’. This is interesting considering that the tobacco plant cultivation also traces its history to the same part of the world, Central America.

A good proportion of people who smoke cigarettes after many years have this look of a well preserved smoked piece of human being.

Many of them have this darkened, dried skin look about them, they tend to fairly slim, as if the smoking has preserved and dehydrated internal organs as well. Given what cigarettes contain this look should not come as a surprise.

 When a person inhales cigarette smoke whether directly or indirectly they inhale more than 7,000 chemicals and chemical compounds.

Many of these chemicals are poisonous and include formaldehyde (also used to embalm dead bodies), cadmium (used in making batteries), arsenic, carbon monoxide (found in car exhaust), hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, butane (used in lighter fluids), and toluene (found in paint thinners) and radioactive materials particularly lead-210 and polonium-210.

These chemicals are easily and efficiently distributed throughout the body because once inhaled into the lungs, it is the primary function of the lungs to distribute oxygen, contained in the air you breath in, to every part of the body. Cigarette smoke destroys the body at almost every level of contact.

 At the level of the lungs the smoke destroys the defence system consisting of the epithelial cell barrier causing gaps to appear that can be infiltrated by foreign bodies like bacteria and virus. It also reduces the amount of mucus being produced by the lungs so that instead of a smooth lining, it dries up resulting in a hacking morning cough to try and dislodge the gunk created.

To add insult cigarette smoke also slows down the inflammatory immune cells so that they are slow to respond to any potential threat. What might look like a small fire, which should be easily put out, becomes international news when the individual is a long-term smoker.

Cigarette smoking is implicated in many diseases and conditions but one worth mentioning is the effect of inhaling radioactive materials, which over a period of time contributes to a significant radiation dose.

This might be one of the factors causing lung cancer among smokers. The radioactive material is contained in the tobacco leaves and comes from two sources the soil the tobacco is grown in and the type of fertilisers used.

 Big fires cause big news and a big fire as our ancestors knew all too well can be good for clearing the undergrowth and allowing a fresh start.

But that does not mean we should not pay attention to the little fires all around us. The smoking signs are there and given our poverty levels we are clearly not using the fire to produce smoke used to help us for the future. Eventually when the coughing starts it is usually too late.

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