You’re out with your friends when Jenna lights up a cigarette. You’ve already decided that you’re never going to smoke, and no one is pressuring you to join in. But you find yourself wondering if your friend’s smoke now circling your head could be bad for you.
Why do you feel stuffy-nosed and headachy, even a bit shaky? Could these symptoms be more than just annoying?
You’d better believe it! Second-hand smoke is made up of two different types of smoke: side-stream smoke–coming from the end of a lighted cigarette, pipe, or cigar–and mainstream smoke–exhaled by a smoker. Secondhand smoke is classified as a Group A or “known human carcinogen” (cancer-causing agent) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other health agencies in the United States and worldwide.
It has been linked to 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year in passive smokers, people who never actually smoked but were exposed to secondhand smoke. So your concern is justified: Secondhand smoke is definitely bad for you!
Turns out that the things that make secondhand smoke so unhealthy for involuntary smokers like you are the same ones that make it unhealthy for the smoker. Consider these facts:
- Tobacco is the only legal substance that’s lethal when used as intended by the manufacturer.
- Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, including over 60 that are known to cause lung cancer.
- Ninety percent of lung cancer deaths are linked to smoking.
Is it any surprise, then, that the smoke produced by a burning cigarette is harmful to anyone who has it enter their lungs, voluntarily or involuntarily? In fact, many people have a physical reaction to secondhand smoke similar to the one they’d have if they were actually smoking (eye and nose irritation, coughing, shakiness, etc.).
This reaction is a result of inhaled carcinogenic chemicals, substances that are similar to the poisons found in the air around toxic waste dumps. These include formaldehyde and arsenic–you’re probably familiar with these from science class–plus nicotine from the tobacco, plus carbon monoxide, a by-product of the burning process. All in all, there’s not much in secondhand smoke that you’d want to inhale.
With studies linking second-hand smoke to lung cancer, nasal sinus cancer, respiratory tract infections, and heart disease, you might wonder just how much of it can be inhaled without harm. That’s a very good question. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Scientists have tested the saliva, blood, and urine of those exposed to secondhand smoke and found the presence of nicotine, carbon monoxide, and other products resulting from the breakdown of cigarette toxins in their body fluids.
They’ve found that kids growing up in homes where one or both adults smoke are more likely to have recurrent ear infections, serious asthma, and upper-respiratory illnesses. Other studies have linked lung cancer and heart problems to secondary smoke. So the relationship between passive smoking and serious health conditions is proven (see the sites listed at the end of this article for details), but the cut-off point for safe exposure levels cannot yet be determined.
So what can you do? The best advice is to keep your distance from smokers. Since the more airflow around a smoker, the better, stay out of cars or other confined areas where a smoker is present. Some states and localities have enacted total no-smoking bans in restaurants and all public places. Many workplaces also have banned smoking indoors. Some employees tell researchers that the ban was the push they needed to quit.
How can governments and workplaces legally ban smoking? The winning argument has to do with–you guessed it–secondhand smoke risks. While cigarette smokers can smoke legally in some places, they do not have the right to impose a health risk to others. Many families are making their homes smoke-free zones by asking anyone smoking to step outside. Your school and the places you head to after school are also likely to have smoking bans.