Hydrazine was reported once in a limited sample of cigarette tobacco and tobacco smoke over 40 years ago[1] but ever since then it has been assumed as fact that hydrazine must be present in smokeless tobacco products as well, without anyone actually examining those products for its presence.

Hydrazine is found in maleic hydrazine, which is a sucker growth inhibitor on tobacco crops. Suckers are side shoots, which if not removed affect the quality and yield of the tobacco plant. Hydrazine is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which can have negative effects on the central nervous system, liver and kidneys and it is on the list of the FDA's "Harmful and Potentially Harmful Constituents" HPHC list, which is why there is a public health interest in the compound and to what degree it occurs in tobacco.

Because anything could be connected to tobacco without question, it has been unchallenged since 1974 but a new study actually decided to find out. Professor Brad Rodu of the University of Louisville and colleagues from British American Tobacco did a comprehensive survey of toxicants in smokeless tobacco products developed a method for determining levels of hydrazine in them.[2]

Their method involves first treating aqueous extracts of STPs with pentafluorobenzaldehyde, which reacts with hydrazine to form decafluorobenzaldehydeazine (DFBA). The DFBA is then quantified by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry to determine hydrazine levels. This method was validated using five different types of smokeless tobacco products.

The researchers used the validated method to analyze hydrazine content in a wide range of commercial smokeless tobacco products from the USA and Sweden. The product types included in the survey were snus, chewing tobacco, moist snuff, dry snuff, plug and pellet products, representing 90% market share of the major STP categories.

None of the STPs were found to contain hydrazine above the current limits for detection (<10ng/g product) or quantification (26.5ng/g). Close investigation of the analysis results identified the possible presence of trace levels of hydrazine in 34 of 70 samples; while in the other 40 there was no evidence of hydrazine being present. The trace elements were at such low levels they cannot be quantified using currently available analytical techniques.

 "Our results indicate that hydrazine is not a prevalent contaminant of contemporary STPs, and in the minority of cases where hydrazine might possibly be present, the levels are substantially lower — by at least an order of magnitude — than those reported previously," says Kevin McAdam, principal scientist at British American Tobacco.

[1] Liu YY, Schmeltz I, Hoffman D. ‘Chemical studies on tobacco smoke. XXVII Quantitative analysis of hydrazine in tobacco and cigarette smoke’. Analytical Chemistry 1974, 46: 885-889.

[2] McAdam et al., ‘Analysis of hydrazine in smokeless tobacco products by gas chromatography-mass spectometry’. Chemistry Central Journal.