Breathing in the toxins in secondhand smoke can cause a variety of health problems, including lung cancer and asthma. Understand more and see how to avoid the dangers.
You don't smoke because you understand the dangers. But what about that thick cloud hanging in the air at your favorite restaurant? What about the haze left behind after your guests have departed after a night of partying? And what about the cigarette your spouse has left burning in an ashtray just a few feet away from your infant?
Are they all a danger, too?
Yes, they are. Compelling evidence indicates that secondhand smoke is a health hazard. And it's nearly as bad as smoking itself. Rich in toxic chemicals, secondhand smoke may play a role in causing or contributing to a number of health problems, from cardiovascular disease to cancer.
But secondhand smoke is often avoidable. Take steps to safeguard yourself and your loved ones from secondhand smoke.
Toxins in secondhand smoke
What exactly is secondhand smoke? It's two different forms of smoke from cigarettes, pipes or cigars:
- Sidestream smoke. This is smoke that wafts from the burning tobacco product.
- Mainstream smoke. This is smoke that the smoker exhales.
Secondhand smoke is also known as environmental tobacco smoke, passive smoking, involuntary smoking and a newer, more descriptive term, tobacco smoke pollution.
Regardless of what you call it, both types of secondhand smoke contain harmful chemicals - and a lot of them. Specifically which chemicals are present depend on the type of tobacco product, how it's smoked and the paper in which the tobacco is wrapped. More than 4,000 chemicals make up the haze of secondhand smoke. And more than 60 of the chemicals in cigarette smoke are known to be carcinogenic, which means they may cause cancer.
Some of the substances found in secondhand smoke that are known or suspected to cause cancer include:
- Ethylene oxide
Here are a few other chemicals in secondhand smoke that might sound familiar, along with their effects on health:
- Ammonia - irritates your lungs
- Carbon monoxide - hampers breathing by reducing oxygen in your blood
- Methanol - toxic when inhaled or swallowed
- Hydrogen cyanide - interferes with proper respiratory function
The dangerous particles given off in secondhand smoke can linger in the air for hours. Even breathing them in for a short time - as little as 20 or 30 minutes - can harm your health in a variety ways. And breathing in secondhand smoke over years can be all the more dangerous.
Adult health threats from secondhand smoke
Health experts have recognized the relationship between secondhand smoke and health risks for decades. Research exploring these connections is ongoing.
Some of the known or suspected health risks include:
In 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency placed environmental tobacco smoke in the most dangerous category of cancer-causing agents, and subsequent research has upheld that status.
Secondhand smoke is a known risk factor for lung cancer. Experts believe that secondhand smoke is to blame for roughly 3,000 deaths from lung cancer in adult nonsmokers each year in the United States. Secondhand smoke is also linked to cancer of the nasal sinuses. It's also been linked to cancers of the cervix, breast and bladder, but the evidence hasn't been as compelling as the link to lung cancer.
Secondhand smoke harms the cardiovascular system of nonsmokers in many ways. For one thing, it causes coronary heart disease, such as a heart attack. It also damages blood vessels, interferes with circulation and increases the risk of blood clots. It's estimated that some 35,000 nonsmokers die of smoking-related heart disease in the United States every year.
Chronic lung ailments, such as bronchitis and asthma, have been associated with secondhand smoke. Exposure to secondhand smoke is also associated with chest tightness at night and feelings of breathlessness after physical activity.
Children's health threats from secondhand smoke
Secondhand smoke has a marked effect on the health of infants and children. They're more vulnerable than adults because they're still developing physically and generally have higher breathing rates, which means they may inhale greater quantities of secondhand smoke than do adults.
For children who live in households where someone smokes, the effects are worst during the child's first five years, since the child may spend the bulk of that time with a smoking parent or guardian. Ironically, infants are at the highest risk of secondhand smoke from their own mothers. A child who spends just one hour in a very smoky room is inhaling as many dangerous chemicals as if he or she smoked 10 or more cigarettes.
Here's a look at some of the main health problems in infants and children associated with secondhand smoke.
Growth and development
Women who are exposed to secondhand smoke during pregnancy are at higher risk of having babies of slightly lower birth weight. This can cause a host of health problems for the baby, such as cerebral palsy or learning disabilities. Women who actively smoke during pregnancy expose their developing baby to passive smoke - the chemicals may pass through the placenta - and put them at risk of lower birth weight. Scientists are studying the link between secondhand smoke and growth delays and congenital malformations.
A developing fetus exposed to secondhand smoke may also be at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). But evidence that post-birth exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of SIDS is inconclusive.
Asthma and other respiratory problems
Secondhand smoke may cause asthma in children. In children who already have asthma, secondhand smoke can make episodes more frequent and more severe.
Secondhand smoke is also tied to lower respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, especially in those younger than 6. It's also associated with irritation of the upper respiratory tract and a small reduction in lung function.
Middle ear conditions
Children living in households with smokers are more likely to have a buildup of fluid in their middle ear, which is an indication of chronic middle ear disease (otitis media).
Other health problems related to secondhand smoke
For both adults and children, secondhand smoke is linked to a variety of other health problems, including:
- Chronic coughing, phlegm and wheezing
- Eye and nose irritation
- Reduced lung function
- Irritability and annoyance
- Dental cavities
How to avoid secondhand smoke
Limiting exposure to secondhand smoke may seem easy, but sometimes it isn't. Secondhand smoke is both an individual health issue and a public health issue, with social and governmental influences.
The public health level
Some issues involving exposure to secondhand smoke are matters of public health policy. For instance, smoking is now banned on all U.S. domestic airline flights and all interstate bus travel, and is restricted on trains traveling within the United States. In addition, some, but not all, communities have tackled the issue by banning smoking in certain places, such as restaurants and airports. Likewise some, but not all, employers have enacted smoking bans or restrictions.
- If you can't go to your favorite restaurant because it allows smoking, you can work to change laws in your community.
- If your employer hasn't banned smoking, you can push for restrictions, such as limiting smoking to certain areas, or encourage smoking-cessation programs. Although finding a new job often isn't an option, it may be something to consider, especially if your health has already been affected.
As an added benefit, in addition to reducing exposure to secondhand smoke, these community-level and workplace smoke-free policies have proved to be among the most effective ways to reduce overall smoking rates among adults.
The individual level
If you're not comfortable taking on activist-type duties, you can still take steps to limit your exposure to secondhand smoke on an individual basis.
- Don't allow smoking inside your home. If family members or guests want to smoke, ask them to step outside. Don't rely on an air conditioner or an open window to clear the air. Running the air conditioner may remove the visible smoke, but it doesn't remove the dangerous particles from circulation. An open window doesn't provide adequate ventilation, either.
If visitors refuse to go outside to smoke, designate a special room for smoking and close it off from the rest of the house and don't let children in that room. But note that even designating a special smoking room doesn't eliminate secondhand smoke - it can still seep into the rest of the house and put others at risk.
- Choose smoke-free care facilities. If you take your children to a child care provider, choose one with a no-smoking policy. The same goes for your aging parents. If they live in a long term care facility, make sure it's smoke-free.
- Don't allow smoking in your vehicle. If someone must smoke on the road, stop at a rest stop for a smoke break outside the car.
- Patronize businesses with no-smoking policies. Many restaurants and other establishments are entirely smoke-free. Support them with your business.
- When you absolutely must share a room with people who are smoking, sit as far away from them as possible.
- If your partner smokes, have him or her refrain from smoking indoors, just as you would with houseguests. Encourage your partner to quit smoking completely.