There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.
What is Secondhand Smoke?
Secondhand smoke, also called environmental tobacco smoke, is a combination of smoke from the burning end of a cigarette, cigar, pipe, or other combustible tobacco product, as well as the smoke breathed out by smokers. Secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, and at least 70 of them are known to cause cancer (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2014).
Exposure to secondhand smoke occurs any time a smoker smokes any tobacco product around another individual.
The Health Risks of Secondhand Smoke
Regular exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk for developing lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke in non-smoking adults by 20-30%. In fact, more than 40,000 lung cancer and heart disease deaths occur each year among adult nonsmokers in the United States as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke. Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, 2.5 million adults who were nonsmokers died because they breathed secondhand smoke (CDC, 2014).
Even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can interfere with the normal functioning of the heart, blood, and vascular systems. Breathing secondhand smoke can have immediate negative effects on a person’s blood and blood vessels, increasing the risk of having a heart attack. People who already have heart disease are at especially high risk of suffering negative effects from breathing secondhand smoke and should take special precautions to avoid even brief exposures (CDC, 2014).
People with chronic health conditions are more likely than healthy people to suffer when exposed to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke can aggravate allergies, symptoms of asthma, and cause other respiratory and lung conditions in nonsmokers.
Secondhand smoke exposure is especially dangerous to children because their lungs are still developing, and their lungs grow less than children who do not breathe secondhand smoke.
Studies show that older children whose parents smoke get sick more often. Wheezing and coughing are more common in children who breathe secondhand smoke, and the risk of lower respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, is increased. Children whose parents smoke around them get more ear infections, have fluid in their ears more often, and have more operations to put in ear tubes for drainage.
Secondhand smoke exposure also increases children’s risk of developing asthma. Even brief exposure can trigger an asthma attack in a child, and those who are around secondhand smoke have more severe and frequent asthma attacks. A severe asthma attack can put a child’s life in danger (CDC, 2014).
An estimated 8,000- 26,000 new asthma cases in children each year and between 150,000 and 300,000 new cases of bronchitis and pneumonia in children aged less than 18 months are associated with secondhand smoke exposure. Another 200,000 to 1 million asthmatic children have their condition worsened by exposure to secondhand smoke.
Babies exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and pregnant women regularly exposed are more likely to give birth to low birth weight babies. In fact, secondhand smoke exposure in pregnant women can be as damaging to the fetus as if the mother were inhaling the smoke directly from a cigarette.
Secondhand Smoke in Indoor Environments
For any environment, the harm from secondhand smoke depends on time spent in the environment and the amount of smoke in that air space. However, smoke-filled rooms can have up to six times the air pollution of a busy highway (CDC, 2014). Most people spend 90% of their time in two types of environments – home and work. Smoke-free workplace laws and voluntary smoke-free home pledges help to reduce the health risks of secondhand smoke.
The Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act (NCIAA) has reduced the amount of secondhand smoke exposure many Nevadans receive in most public places and indoor places of employment, such as restaurants, movie theaters, and schools. In 2012 about 30% of Nevadans reported exposure to tobacco smoke on the job at least one day a week compared with more than 40% in 2005 prior to the passage of the NCIAA. Unfortunately, there are still many people working in casinos, bars, and other locations who are not protected by the NCIAA and who are exposed daily to secondhand smoke.
Protect your children and your family by making your home and car smoke-free. If you smoke, choose to do so outside and never inside your home or car, even if the windows are down. Prohibit others from smoking in your home or car as well. Don’t smoke inside, even when children are not present. Studies reveal that even if there is not active smoking while children are present, smoke can linger in an enclosed area (like a house or car) for up to seven days after a person has smoked. Make sure your children’s day care centers and schools are tobacco-free. And avoid places that still allow smoking indoors (CDC, 2014).