Secondhand smoke is also known as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) or passive smoke. It is a mixture of 2 forms of smoke that comes from burning tobacco:
- sidestream smoke: smoke that comes from the end of a lighted cigarette, pipe, or cigar
- mainstream smoke: smoke that is exhaled by a smoker
When non-smokers are exposed to secondhand smoke it is called involuntary smoking or passive smoking. Non-smokers who breathe in secondhand smoke take in nicotine and other toxic chemicals just like smokers do. The more secondhand smoke you are exposed to, the higher the level of these harmful chemicals in your body.
Why is secondhand smoke a problem?
Secondhand smoke causes cancer
Secondhand smoke is classified as a “known human carcinogen” (cancer-causing agent) by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US National Toxicology Program, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization.
Tobacco smoke contains over 4,000 chemical compounds. More than 60 of these are known or suspected to cause cancer.
Secondhand smoke causes other kinds of diseases and deaths
Secondhand smoke can cause harm in many ways. In the United States alone, each year it is responsible for:
- an estimated 35,000 deaths from heart disease in non-smokers who live with smokers
- about 3,000 lung cancer deaths in non-smoking adults
- other breathing problems in non-smokers, including coughing, mucus, chest discomfort, and reduced lung function
- 150,000 to 300,000 lung infections (such as pneumonia and bronchitis) in children younger than 18 months of age, which result in 7,500 to 15,000 hospitalizations annually
- increases in the number and severity of asthma attacks in about 200,000 to 1 million children who have asthma
- more than 750,000 middle ear infections in children
Pregnant women exposed to secondhand smoke are also at increased risk of having low birth weight babies.
Secondhand smoke may be linked to breast cancer
An issue that is still being studied is whether secondhand smoke may increase the risk of breast cancer. Both mainstream and secondhand smoke contain about 20 chemicals that, in high concentrations, cause breast cancer in rodents. And we know that in humans, chemicals from tobacco smoke reach breast tissue and are found in breast milk.
Any link between secondhand smoke and breast cancer risk in human studies is still being debated. This is partly because breast cancer risk has not been shown to be increased in active smokers. One possible explanation for this is that tobacco smoke may have different effects on breast cancer risk in smokers and in those who are exposed to secondhand smoke.
A report from the California Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 concluded that the evidence regarding secondhand smoke and breast cancer is “consistent with a causal association” in younger women. This means that the secondhand smoke acts like it could be a cause of breast cancer in these women. The 2006 US Surgeon General’s report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, found that there is “suggestive but not sufficient” evidence of a link at this point. In any case, women should be told that this possible link to breast cancer is yet another reason to avoid being around secondhand smoke.
Secondhand smoke kills children and adults who don’t smoke, and makes others sick (Surgeon General’s report)
The 2006 US Surgeon General’s report reached some important conclusions:
- Secondhand smoke causes premature death and disease in children and in adults who do not smoke.
- Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), acute respiratory infections, ear problems, and more severe asthma. Smoking by parents causes breathing (respiratory) symptoms and slows lung growth in their children.
- Secondhand smoke immediately affects the heart and blood circulation in a harmful way. Over a longer time it also causes heart disease and lung cancer.
- The scientific evidence shows that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Many millions of Americans, both children and adults, are still exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes and workplaces despite a great deal of progress in tobacco control.
- The only way to fully protect non-smokers from exposure to secondhand smoke indoors is to prevent all smoking in that indoor space or building. Separating smokers from non-smokers, cleaning the air, and ventilating buildings cannot keep non-smokers from being exposed to secondhand smoke.
Where is secondhand smoke a problem?
There are 4 places where you should be especially concerned about exposure to secondhand smoke:
The workplace is a major source of secondhand smoke exposure for adults. Secondhand smoke meets the standard to be classified as a potential cancer-causing agent by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for health and safety regulations in the workplace. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), another federal agency, also recommends that secondhand smoke be considered a possible carcinogen in the workplace. Because there are no known safe levels, they recommend that exposures to secondhand smoke be reduced to the lowest possible levels.
Secondhand smoke in the workplace has been linked to an increased risk for heart disease and lung cancer among adult non-smokers. The Surgeon General has said that smoke-free workplace policies are the only way to do away with secondhand smoke exposure in the workplace. Separating smokers from non-smokers, cleaning the air, and ventilating the building cannot prevent exposure if people still smoke inside the building. An extra bonus besides protecting non-smokers is that workplace smoking restrictions may also encourage smokers to quit.
Everyone can be exposed to secondhand smoke in public places, such as restaurants, shopping centers, public transportation, schools, and daycare centers. Some businesses seem to be afraid to ban smoking, but there is no credible evidence that going smoke-free is bad for business. Public places where children go are a special area of concern.
Making your home smoke-free may be one of the most important things you can do for the health of your family. Any family member can develop health problems related to secondhand smoke.
Children are especially sensitive to secondhand smoke. Asthma, lung infections, and ear infections are more common in children who are around smokers. Some of these problems can be serious and even life-threatening. Others may seem like small problems, but they add up quickly: think of the expenses, doctor visits, medicines, lost school time, and often lost work time for the parent who must take the child to the doctor. In the United States, 21 million, or 35% of children live in homes where residents or visitors smoke in the home on a regular basis. About 50% to 75% of children in the United States have detectable levels of cotinine, the breakdown product of nicotine, in their blood.
Think about it: we spend more time at home than anywhere else. A smoke-free home protects your family, your guests, and even your pets.
Cars are another place that you can be exposed to secondhand smoke. Americans spend a great deal of time in cars, and if someone smokes there, hazardous levels of smoke can build up quickly. Again, this can be especially harmful to children. In response to this fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency has a special program to encourage people to make their cars, as well as their homes, smoke-free.
What about smoking odors?
There is no research in the medical literature about the cancer-causing effects of cigarette odors. Research does show that secondhand tobacco smoke can get into hair, clothing, and other surfaces. Though unknown, the cancer-causing effects would likely be very small compared to direct exposure to secondhand smoke, such as living in a house with a smoker.