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The Hunger Project Bolen Report
Ohm Society
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Secondhand Smoke Print E-mail
by Ron Kennedy, M.D., Santa Rosa, CA

Dr. Kennedy Secondhand smoke can cause a variety of health problems, including lung cancer and asthma. Evidence indicates that secondhand smoke is a health hazard and it is even nearly as bad as smoking itself (Risks of Smoking). Secondhand smoke plays a role in causing or contributing to a number of health problems, from lung and cardiovascular disease to cancer, not only in adults but in children as well.

Terminology

Sidestream smoke is smoke that wafts from the burning tobacco product. Mainstream smoke is smoke that the smoker exhales. Secondhand smoke is also known as environmental tobacco smoke, passive smoking, involuntary smoking and a newer term, tobacco smoke pollution. Regardless of what you call it, both types of secondhand smoke contain harmful chemicals — and a lot of them. More than 4,000 chemicals make up secondhand smoke and more than 60 of the chemicals in cigarette smoke are known to be carcinogenic (they may cause cancer). Some of the substances found in secondhand smoke that are known or suspected to cause cancer include:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Benzene
  • Arsenic
  • Ethylene oxide
  • Cadmium

    Here are a few other chemicals in secondhand smoke that might sound familiar, along with their effects on health:

  • Ammonia — irritates the lungs
  • Carbon monoxide — reduces the available oxygen in the blood
  • Methanol (wood alcohol) — toxic when inhaled or swallowed, especially to the liver
  • Hydrogen cyanide — interferes with proper respiratory function

    Cancer

    The dangerous particles given off in secondhand smoke linger in the air for hours. Even breathing them in for a short time can harm your health and breathing in secondhand smoke over years can be all the more dangerous. In 1993, the EPA placed secondhand tobacco smoke in the most dangerous category of cancer-causing agents. Further research has confirmed this. Secondhand smoke is a known risk factor for lung cancer. It is responsible for around 3,000 deaths from lung cancer in adult nonsmokers each year in the U.S. Secondhand smoke is also linked to cancer of the nasal sinuses and it has been linked to cancers of the breast, cervix, and bladder.

    Heart Disease

    Secondhand smoke causes coronary heart disease including heart attack. It also damages blood vessels, interferes with circulation and increases the risk of blood clots. Around 35,000 nonsmokers die of smoking-related heart disease in the U.S. each year.

    Lung Disease

    Chronic lung diseases, such as bronchitis, asthma, and emphysema have been associated with secondhand smoke. Exposure to secondhand smoke is also associated with chest tightness at night and shortness of breath after physical activity.

    Children's Health Threats From Secondhand Smoke

    Children are more vulnerable than adults because they're still developing physically and generally have higher breathing rates, which means they will inhale greater quantities of secondhand smoke than adults. The effects are worst during a child's first five years, since the child may spend the bulk of that time with a smoking parent or guardian. Infants are at the highest risk of secondhand smoke from their own mothers. A child who spends just one hour in a very smokey room inhales as many dangerous chemicals as if 10 or more cigarettes were smoked. Women who are exposed during pregnancy are at higher risk of having babies of 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 pass through the placenta) and put them at risk of lower birth weight. A developing fetus exposed to secondhand smoke may also be at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Secondhand smoke may cause asthma in children. In children who already have asthma and it can make episodes more frequent and severe. Secondhand smoke is also associated with a higher rate of lower respiratory infections (bronchitis and pneumonia), especially in those younger than six years. It's also associated with irritation of the upper respiratory tract and a small reduction in lung function. Exposed children are more likely to have a buildup of fluid in their middle ear, which can lead to chronic middle ear disease (otitis media).

    To Summarize

  • Eye and nose irritation
  • Reduced lung function
  • Middle ear infection
  • Childhood asthma
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Chronic coughing, phlegm and wheezing
  • Irritability
  • Dental cavities

    Public Health Considerations

    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 communities have tackled the issue by banning smoking in certain places, such as airports and restaurants. Likewise some, but not all, employers have enacted smoking bans or restrictions.

    What You Can Do

  • 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.
  • Don't allow smoking inside your home (don't rely on an air conditioner or an open window to clear the air).
  • Choose smoke-free care facilities.
  • Don't allow smoking in your vehicle.
  • Work to change laws in your community.
  • Push for restrictions in the workplace such as limiting smoking to certain areas, or encourage smoking-cessation programs.
  • Patronize businesses with no-smoking policies.
  • When you absolutely must share a room with people who are smoking, sit as far away from them as possible.


  • The information in this article is not meant to be medical advice.�Treatment for a medical condition should come at the recommendation of your personal physician.

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