Environmental Tobacco Smoke
Passive Smoking Health Effects
“Exposure to secondhand smoke may have certain harmful – possibly even fatal – health effects such as lung cancer and heart disease.” (American Lung Association, 2001)
“We found that passive smoking poses a significant threat to public health, particularly childhood respiratory health, lung cancer, and that the evidence in relation to heart disease is growing all the time. And there was no dispute about that.” (Associate Professor Konrad Jamrozik of the University of Western Australia on Radio National, Australia, 06Oct1997)
Billion-dollar law suits against tobacco companies highlight the fact that smoking is a major cause of death and disease. Because the evidence is mounting that passive smoking is also a health hazard, smoke-free restaurants, offices and public places slowly become the norm. A typical example is the ban of smoking on all flights of major airlines.
No such bans exist in our homes, of course, where non-smoking partners and children breathe secondhand cigarette smoke. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports (1989-1990) that 43.4% of children under 15 live in households where either one parent or both are smoking. This doesn’t come as a surprise as the same report also shows that of all Australian males 32% currently smoke. The female population fares slightly better with 25% smokers in that year. Data from Scottish health statistics state that in 1998 27.8% of women smoked at the start of their pregnancy.
Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), or secondhand smoke, as it is also called, is the toxic waste of tobacco combustion. It has two sources: the mainstream smoke exhaled by the smoker and the sidestream smoke that is emitted from the burning tobacco in cigarettes, pipes or cigars and does not pass through the smokers’ lungs. You are a passive smoker when you inhale the secondhand smoke or ETS.
Take a deep breath and you fill your lungs with many toxic substances and cancer-causing agents including nicotine, tar, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, arsenic, benzene and phenols. Research has identified around 40 compounds in tobacco smoke that cause cancer in animals and humans. The number of hazardous chemicals increases to 60 when the scientists include tumor promoters and initiators. In addition the smoke contains harmful fine particles (particulate matter) that are associated with heart disease; irritation of throat, lung and eyes; impaired breathing; lung diseases; and aggravation of existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
An increasing number of scientific reports clearly identifies passive smoking as a cause for cancer. The risk that an adult dies of secondhand smoke is much smaller than the risk a direct smoker takes, but it is still significant. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that approximately 100,000 citizens die each year as a direct consequence of smoking, while ‘only’ 3,000 deaths can be blamed on passive smoking. Worldwide the figure grows to hundreds of thousands. Consequently, ETS is now classified as known human cancer-causing substance (carcinogen).
In the average, passive smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer by 24% to 30%. The figure depends very much on the amount of smoke a person is subjected to. Some studies suggest that certain compounds in ETS may also have a negative effect on the cardiovascular system, such as an increased heart rate and blood pressure, and the onset of chest pain; and may cause heart disease in adults. Less dramatic are the millions of cases with moderate to severe smoke-induced illnesses and disorders such as: rhinitis, coughing, wheezing, eye irritation, headache and aggravation of other respiratory conditions.
In Australia, approximately 8% of childhood asthma and 13% of lower respiratory illness is attributable to secondhand smoke.
Children’s lungs are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of secondary smoke. Passive smoking, if not causing asthma or respiratory illnesses, can aggravate existing conditions. Some evidence links passive smoking by children also to persistent accumulation of fluids in the middle ear (middle ear effusion), reduced lung function and slower lung development, and to an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Reduce Exposure to Secondhand Smoke
Smoking in homes may increase the pollutants to levels several times higher than one would reasonably expect in polluted outdoor air. Ventilating a room by opening the windows should, therefore, decrease the concentration in indoor air.
Recent research, however, concluded that the complex mixture of chemical compounds in cigarette smoke can’t be dilated enough to reduce the risk to non-smokers.
Air cleaners, in general, are only capable of filtering out the solid particles in the smoke, but can’t stop all gaseous substances from re-entering the room. The only feasible solution is, therefore, the elimination of smoking indoors.
This, however, requires public education so that smokers become aware that passive smoking is hazardous to the health of their partners and in particular their children.