Secondhand smoke is an environmental hazard

Most men know that smoking cigarettes is a major health threat. But did you know that more deaths are caused each year by tobacco us
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

Most men know that smoking cigarettes is a major health threat. But did you know that more deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by all deaths from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides and murders combined?

Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Cigarette smoking causes an estimated 438,000 deaths, including 259,500 men each year. This estimate includes approximately 38,000 deaths from secondhand smoke exposure. In addition, annually, cigarette smoking costs more than $167 billion, based on lost productivity ($92 billion) and health care expenditures ($75.5 billion), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While most people understand the dangers of cigarettes, they may not realize the consequences of secondhand smoke, also known as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS).

What is in secondhand smoke?

Secondhand smoke has been designated as a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Secondhand smoke is composed of sidestream smoke (the smoke released from the burning end of a cigarette) and exhaled mainstream smoke (the smoke exhaled by the smoker). Because sidestream smoke is generated at lower temperatures and under different conditions than mainstream smoke, it contains higher concentrations of many of the toxins found in inhaled cigarette smoke.

The National Toxicology Program estimates that at least 250 chemicals in secondhand smoke are known to be toxic or carcinogenic. This smoke contains a number of poisonous gases and chemicals, including hydrogen cyanide (used in chemical weapons), carbon monoxide (found in car exhaust), butane (used in lighter fluid), ammonia (used in household cleaners), and toluene (found in paint thinners). Some of the toxic metals contained in secondhand smoke include arsenic (used in pesticides), lead (formerly found in paint), chromium (used to make steel), and cadmium (used to make batteries).

What types of health problems does this environmental hazard cause?

According to the American Lung Association,

• Secondhand smoke causes approximately 3,400 lung cancer deaths and 46,000 heart disease deaths in adult nonsmokers in the United States each year.

• Secondhand smoke is especially harmful to young children. It is responsible for between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections in infants and children under 18 months of age, resulting in between 7,500 and 15,000 hospitalizations each year, and causes 430 sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) deaths in the United States annually.

• Secondhand smoke exposure may cause buildup of fluid in the middle ear, resulting in 790,000 physician office visits per year.

• Secondhand smoke can also aggravate symptoms in 400,000 to 1 million children with asthma.

• In the United States, 21 million, or 35 percent of children live in homes where residents or visitors smoke in the home on a regular basis. Approximately 50-75 percent of children in the United States have detectable levels of cotinine, the breakdown product of nicotine, in the blood.

• The current surgeon general’s report concludes that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Short exposures to secondhand smoke can cause blood platelets to become stickier, damage the lining of blood vessels, decrease coronary flow velocity reserves and reduce heart rate variability, potentially increasing the risk of heart attack.

Did you know that health care costs associated with exposure to secondhand smoke average $10 billion annually? With these statistics, it’s important that we protect ourselves and our loved ones from the effects of this environmental hazard. For non-smokers, try to limit your exposure to smoke.

If you are a smoker, make sure that you don’t smoke in a confined space where others are exposed to your smoke. Please remember, smoking in another room of the house does not limit secondhand smoke exposure.  The smoke infiltrates the house and can penetrate carpets, drapes and linens. This results in repeated exposure to the toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke. So be respectful of others. If you would like to quit the habit, Fisher-Titus Medical Center provides an online smoking cessation program. Contact 419-668-8101, Ext. 6320 or at 800 589-3862, Ext. 6320 or access the Web site at