Even if you know all about the dangers associated with smoking, you might think that you’re safe from harm if you’re not a smoker. However, if you live with someone who smokes or spend a lot of time in an environment where others are smoking, you could be damaging your health nearly as much as if you smoked yourself. This form of passive exposure to smoke is also called secondhand smoke, and it can be dangerous to your health. Here are some ways secondhand smoke puts you at risk - and how you can fight back to minimize those risks.
What Types of Smoke are Risky?
The smoke that comes from the end of a lit cigarette is called sidestream smoke and the smoke exhaled by a smoker is called mainstream smoke. Although both are damaging, sidestream smoke contains more cancer-causing particles and is much more dangerous. All forms of burning tobacco, including cigarettes, pipes and cigars, release mainstream and secondhand smoke and contain toxins. Some of the dangerous chemicals in all forms of smoke include benzene, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. Secondhand smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, at least 69 of which can cause cancer.
Effects on Children
Adults often have a choice about whether or not they’re exposed to secondhand smoke. But children are powerless and vulnerable when it comes to smoke exposure, and it can have detrimental effects on a child’s development.
One of the biggest potential risks to child health from growing up in a smoking home is chronic asthma. As many as one million children are suffering from asthma because of exposure to secondhand smoke, and the secondhand smoke makes related health complications more likely to occur. Children who grow up around secondhand smoke are at greater risk of upper respiratory and lung infections like bronchitis and pneumonia.
Infants exposed to secondhand smoke have more ear infections and are at much higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.
When mothers smoke during pregnancy, it can also cause problems with their child’s development. Prenatal smoking is associated with very low birth weights and premature births, which endangers a baby’s life and can require expensive medical care at the time of birth.
Specific Health Risks
Exposure to the chemicals in secondhand smoke can weaken your immune system and put you at greater risk of developing cancer. Although lung cancer is the greatest risk, some evidence suggests that secondhand smoke may also be linked to breast cancer. The risk of lung cancer in nonsmokers increases by 25 to 30 percent when regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. About 3,000 deaths occur each year in nonsmokers who live with smokers.
In addition to increasing the risk of lung cancer, secondhand smoke also boosts your risks of other lung and respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. It can cause more complications associated with asthma in susceptible individuals as well.
Secondhand smoke also drastically increases your risk of having a heart attack, almost as much as if you smoked yourself. Exposure to secondhand smoke is responsible for nearly 50,000 fatal heart attack deaths each year. A 2009 report by the Institute of Medicine found that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke could be significant enough to trigger a heart attack.
Another matter that is less deadly but still a very serious concern is that exposure to secondhand smoke can cause problems with infertility and miscarriage. A study by the University of Rochester Medical Center found that women who grew up with at least six hours a day of exposure to secondhand smoke were 68 percent more likely to have difficulty getting pregnant and to suffer from one or more miscarriages.
Minimizing Secondhand Smoke Risk
The risks of secondhand smoke increase proportionately with the amount of smoke you’re exposed to, although there is no safe level of exposure. When you’re a child, you obviously have no choice about whether or not you’re exposed to smoke. Public health and safety campaigns may be more effective in encouraging parents and other adults not to smoke in the presence of children.
Many cities are passing ordinances that prohibit smoking in indoor spaces, including places of work, government buildings, and even restaurants and bars. When Pueblo, Colorado enacted a smoking ban in 2003, it resulted in a 27 percent reduction in hospital admissions for heart attacks. Helena, Montana found a 40 percent reduction in heart attacks after a smoking ban. However, some studies suggest that those improvements are only temporary.
However, public support is not unanimous when it comes to smoking bans in bars, with support for such measures running only slightly above 50 percent. Even cities that pass ordinances that ban smoking in bars and restaurants often revisit those issues later. The city of Casper, Wyoming, for example, successfully voted to overturn their ban on smoking in certain public spaces.
Limiting or completely avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke is the only way to get rid of your risks from it. Although changes in public opinion and even legislation prohibiting secondhand smoke can definitely help to reduce the risk, ultimately only you can control your health by choosing to avoid exposure.