The Danger Of Second-Hand Smoke
Why should non-smokers care about all of this information? Second-hand smoke (SHS) is difficult to avoid and it’s just as lethal as smoking it directly.
There are two types of second-hand smoke: mainstream smoke is the smoke that is exhaled by a smoker, and side-stream smoke is the smoke that comes from a burning cigarette, cigar or pipe. Nonsmokers inhale second-hand smoke when they are around smokers. It lingers in the air after cigarettes, cigars or pipes have been extinguished. Even though we think of these as the same, they aren’t. The side-stream smoke has higher concentrations of cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) than the mainstream smoke. And, it contains smaller particles than mainstream smoke, which make their way into the body’s cells more easily.
Exposure to second-hand smoke is called involuntary smoking or passive smoking. Second-hand smoke can cause or exacerbate a wide range of adverse health effects, especially in children.
The EPA has classified second-hand smoke as a known carcinogen. It contains hundreds of chemicals, including formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic ammonia and hydrogen cyanide.
According to the American Lung Association, second-hand smoke causes almost 50,000 deaths in adult nonsmokers in the United States each year, including approximately 3,400 from lung cancer and as many as 69,600 from heart disease. It can also irritate the lungs causing coughing, wheezing, increased phlegm and a feeling of breathlessness. Children who are exposed have an increased risk of asthma attacks, ear infections and lung diseases (i.e., pneumonia and bronchitis).
To protect yourself and your family from second-hand smoke, do not allow anyone to smoke in your home. If you have loved ones or coworkers who smoke, make sure they know that you would prefer them to not smoke around you and your family. Do not smoke or allow others to smoke in your car. Choose restaurants and bars that are smoke-free. Make sure that your child’s day care, school and after-school programs are smoke-free. Finally, ask your employer, clubhouse, hospital or day program to create a smoke-free policy.
Secondhand smoke is a known human carcinogen, responsible for at least 3,400 lung cancer deaths in just the U.S. each year, as well as more than 46,000 (range of 22,700-69,600) cardiovascular deaths and hundreds of thousands of asthma episodes.
According to the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 40.1 percent, or 88 million, of nonsmokers aged three years or older had serum cotinine (a nicotine metabolite) levels that indicated recent exposure to secondhand smoke. Elevated levels were more common among men (43.5 percent) than women (37.4 percent), those who lived with someone who smoked inside the home (96 percent) than those who did not (<40 percent), and younger age groups than older:
- 3-11 years = 53.6 percent
- 12-19 years = 46 percent
- 20-39 years = 42.8 percent;
- 40-59 years = 35.4 percent
- 60 years = 31.6 percent
Since 1964, 30 separate US Surgeon General’s reports have been written to make the public aware of the health issues linked to tobacco and SHS. The ongoing research used in these reports continues to support the fact that tobacco and SHS are linked to serious health problems that could be prevented.
The reports have highlighted many important findings on SHS, such as:
- SHS kills children and adults who don’t smoke.
- SHS causes disease in children and in adults who don’t smoke.
- Exposure to SHS while pregnant increases the chance that a woman will have a spontaneous abortion, still-born birth, low birth- weight baby, and other pregnancy and delivery problems.
- Chemicals in tobacco smoke damage sperm which might reduce fertility and harm fetal development. SHS is known to damage sperm in animals, but more studies are needed to find out its effects in humans.
- Babies and children exposed to SHS are at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), acute respiratory infections, ear infections, and more severe and frequent asthma attacks.
- Smoking by parents can cause wheezing, coughing, bronchitis, and pneumonia, and slow lung growth in their children.
- SHS immediately affects the heart, blood vessels, and blood circulation in a harmful way. Over time it can cause heart disease, strokes, and heart attacks.
- SHS causes lung cancer in people who have never smoked. Even brief exposure can damage cells in ways that set the cancer process in motion.
- There is no safe level of exposure to SHS. Any exposure is harmful.
- Many millions of Americans, both children and adults, are still exposed to SHS in their homes and workplaces despite a great deal of progress in tobacco control.
- On average, children are exposed to more SHS than non-smoking adults.
- The only way to fully protect non-smokers from exposure to SHS indoors is to prevent all smoking in that indoor space or building. Separating smokers from non-smokers, cleaning the air, and ventilating buildings cannot keep non-smokers from being exposed to SHS.