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Secondhand smoke is toxic

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Gabriela Patterson
  • 375th Aerospace Medicine squadron
As the Great American Smoke Out quickly approaches, it is important that we take a look at our surroundings.

Smoking affects everyone whether you choose to use tobacco products or not. It may not directly affect us but might impact a friend, loved one, or even a beloved pet. Usually this impact may not be from their life choices but from the choices of others.

Secondhand smoke, also known as environmental tobacco smoke, can be found in two forms: side stream smoke, smoke from the lighted end of a cigarette, pipe, or cigar, or mainstream smoke, which is smoke exhaled by a smoker.

Inhaling secondhand smoke is often referred to as involuntary smoking or passive smoking and can be equally as dangerous to those frequently exposed as smoking is to the individual. Nonsmokers who breathe in SHS take in nicotine and toxic chemicals by the same route smokers do. The more SHS you breathe, the higher the level of these harmful chemicals in your body.

So why is it a problem? SHS has been linked to lung cancer. There is also some evidence suggesting it may be linked with childhood leukemia and cancers of the larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), brain, bladder, rectum, stomach, and breast. The International Agency for Research on Cancer reported in 2009 that parents who smoked before and throughout pregnancy were at higher risk to have a child with a rare form of cancer called hepatoblastoma. This rare cancer is thought to start while the child is still in the uterus. Compared with nonsmoking parents, the risk was about doubled if only one parent smoked, but nearly five times higher when both parents smoked.

Even our pets are affected since they often breathe the secondhand smoke or can absorb the nicotine through their skin while being affectionate with their owners. This often times creates dependence and health related issues for them as well.

Secondhand smoke can cause harm in many ways. Every year in the United States alone, it is responsible for:

-An estimated 46,000 deaths from heart disease in people who are current nonsmokers and about 3,400 lung cancer deaths in non-smoking adults. 

-Between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections (lung and bronchus) and worse asthma and asthma-related problems in up to 1 million asthmatic children, in children under 18 months of age, with 7,500 to 15,000 hospitalizations each year.

-Children exposed to secondhand smoke are much more likely to be put into intensive care when they have the flu, have longer hospital stays, and are more likely to need breathing tubes than kids who aren't exposed. SHS can also cause wheezing, coughing, bronchitis, and pneumonia, and slow lung growth in children.

-Exposure to SHS while pregnant increases the chance that a woman will have a miscarriage, stillborn birth, low birth-weight baby, and other pregnancy and delivery problems.

-Babies and children exposed to SHS are at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory infections, ear infections, and more severe and frequent asthma attacks.

So where is SHS a problem? Usually there are four main places where there is concern for exposure: in the work place setting, public places, at home, and in the car. Many states have passed laws to protect individuals from SHS exposure. Detailed information on smoking restrictions in each state is available from the American Lung Association at  

There are multiple steps that you can take to prevent exposure to SHS to include: avoid restaurants and areas where tobacco use is permitted, avoid tobacco use in the home and in your vehicle for yourself and others.