The Effects of Secondhand Smoke


Ten years ago secondhand smoke was seen as a minor irritant that could make your job uncomfortable or ruin your dinner at a fancy restaurant. But recent studies now suggest that for some people secondhand smoke can be deadly.

What’s in Secondhand Smoke?

Secondhand smoke contains the same poisons in the smoke that smokers inhale—such chemicals as formaldehyde, arsenic, cyanide, radioactive compounds, benzene and carton monoxide. In fact, the smoke that the smoker doesn’t inhale may contain higher amounts of these poisons. This is because the inhaled smoke is burned at a higher temperature that destroys some of the toxins, and it’s filtered.

Secondhand Smoke Is a Killer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that passive smoking—being in the presence of a spouse or coworker who smokes—causes about 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year. Passive smoking accounts for as many as perhaps 30,000 to 50,000 deaths annually from heart disease in nonsmokers.

Secondhand Smoke Is a Health Hazard

Passive smoking also causes a host of nonfatal health problems, such as burning eyes, hoarseness, throat irritation, sneezing, headache and nausea. Those with asthma, hay fever, sinusitis, emphysema and other health conditions are especially sensitive to the effects of cigarette smoke. Asthma and bronchitis are aggravated in people who are exposed to cigarette smoke, especially in children under 18 months of age. Children of smokers also have an increased chance of developing serious lung problems such as asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia.

Taking Action

Fortunately, many companies are responding to the dangers of secondhand smoke. Smokers are asked to leave the building to smoke or to smoke in designated areas away from the workplace. Many cities have banned smoking from restaurants, workplaces and other public places.

What Can We Do?

To protect yourself, ask visitors not to smoke in your house. Ask to be seated in nonsmoking areas of restaurants and public transportation. Encourage hospitals, clinics and schools to be smoke-free. Let your legislators know that you stand behind regulations designed to protect the nonsmoker. Most of all, if you smoke, stop, for your family’s sake. If others in your family smoke, help them to stop. You’ll all breathe easier—in more ways than one.

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