While everyone gathered in anxious anticipation to see the smoke signals wafting from the Sistine Chapel chimney designating a new Pope, you were better off watching it from the “sanctity” of your own home and television.

Reverend Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, informed the public that the black smoke in the signal from the conclave’s burned ballots,  consists of cartridges filled with potassium perchlorate, anthracene from coal tar and sulfur .  The constituents of the white smoke letting the world know that a new pope has been selected, are potassium chlorate, lactose and chloroform resin.

Though Lombardi stressed that the cardinals inside were not affected from the smoke, would you have been if you were gathered in the square?

Smoke Toxicity

While looking harmless, potassium chlorate which contributes to the white property of the conclave’s signal can cause very serious damage to your skin, eyes and internal organs.  When involved with fire, toxic fumes are exuded.   According to MSDS, The Material Safety Data Sheet, potassium chlorate is “toxic to blood, kidneys, lungs, nervous system, liver and mucous membranes”

Anthracene can enter the body through lungs while breathing in contaminated air.  Once inside, anthracene targets skin, digestive system, lymph system and blood.  Possible symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Inflammation
  • burning,
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Weakness and fatigue

The exposure level of anthracene is unknown in terms of harm and The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that there isn’t enough data to classify anthracene as a cancer-causing agent.

Chlorinated hydrocarbons or resins are likewise hazardous. They dissolve in fatty tissue causing dermatitis, and even small amounts absorbed through the skin can cause marked kidney and liver damage.

People with heart problems or chronic exposure from cigarettes are particularly at high risk.

The Environmental Protection Agency includes sulfur dioxide in their list of “most hazardous wastes”.  When released into the air from burning, sulfur dioxide can transform to sulfuric acid and sulfur trioxide.  Even short-term exposures to high levels of sulfur dioxide can be fatal. Breathing in the noxious gas can cause  difficulty breathing, and burning of the nose and throat.  Children are especially vulnerable.  For those suffering from asthma, people are extremely sensitive to low concentrations of sulfur dioxide.

The burning of ballots has been a time-honored tradition.  Yet in today’s digital age, perhaps it can be changed to announcing the new pope online or on screen.  Even having the new pope come out and give the blessing in person as a way of letting everyone know that he has been selected, would be healthier.

In the meantime, is the small waft of smoke really dangerous to those breathing it in and exposed?

One can only “hazard” a guess!

If you have thoughts about this, comment below.