You’re sitting in your favorite fast-food restaurant, and the people at the next table are puffing away at cigarettes. You’re in your friend’s car, and he lights up. Your mom says she knows she should quit, but she goes through a pack a day.
What’s it to you?
Even if you don’t smoke, your health is at risk if you spend a lot of time around people who smoke. That’s because when you’re near a smoker, you’re inhaling what is known as secondhand smoke. It’s also called passive smoke.
Hazard in the Air
Just how dangerous is secondhand smoke? A report issued by the American Heart Association (AHA) says that passive smoke causes 53,000 deaths annually. That makes it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States today, ranking just behind active smoke and alcohol.
Because lung cancer has been definitely linked to active smoking, researchers soon discovered that secondhand smoke could also cause lung cancer.
A three-year study of nonsmoking women whose husbands smoked found that these women had a 30 percent higher risk of developing lung cancer. The study also found that exposure to secondhand smoke in the workplace and social settings also increased a person’s risk of lung cancer. In fact, the exposure may be even greater in an office, where people are working together all day in close quarters.
The Environmental Protection Agency and other researchers have estimated that 7 percent of lung cancers may result solely from passive smoke.
Children at Risk
The long-term effects of passive smoke on children’s health are a great concern. The American Lung Association (ALA) noted that children breathe more rapidly than adults and inhale more air. That means if a smoker is around, the child is also inhaling more secondhand smoke.
Because a child’s lungs are still developing, the risk of damage is greater. Children of smokers are at a higher risk of allergies and respiratory illness than are children of nonsmokers.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1990 concluded that children and adolescents who lived with smokers for long periods of time had a greater chance of developing lung cancer as adults. The study found that about 17 percent of lung cancers among nonsmoking adults were caused by high levels of exposure to cigarette smoke during their childhood and adolescence.
More recent studies on the hazards smoking towards children from passive smoke have not duplicated these findings. But a newer report suggested that prenatal exposure from a pregnant mother’s smoking might increase the risk of cancer to the child.
Smoking and the Heart
Passive smoke has also been linked to heart disease. The American Heart Association reported that researchers have concluded that secondhand smoke causes about 10 times as many deaths from heart disease as it does from lung cancer. A number of studies have found tnon-smokerskers living with smokers have a 30 percent increase in their chance of dying from heart disease or heart attack.
While the development of cancer due to secondhand smoke seems to be a long-term process, the effects of smoke on the heart and blood vessels are immediate. The AHA warns that the transportation of oxygen by red blood cells is immediately hampered by the carbon monoxide in secondhand smoke.
Once in the body, carbon monoxide competes with oxygen for binding sites on hemoglobin in red blood cells, thus reducing the ability of blood to transport oxygen. So the more carbon monoxide you breathe, the less oxygen is getting to your heart, lungs, brain, and other vital body functions. Carbon monoxide is particularly dangerous to people who have heart disease because the amount of oxygen getting to their heart muscle is already reduced.
It’s easy to see how inhaling smoke, whether you’re a smoker or nonsmoker, makes an exercise harder. When you exercise, your need for oxygen increases. But if you are exposed to tobacco smoke, the blood does not carry oxygen as well. What oxygen does get to the heart is not converted into energy as efficiently.
If you’re concerned about improving your athletic performance, it’s not enough to avoid smoking yourself. You’ll also need to stay away from people who smoke.
Secondhand smoke also can have long-term effects on the heart. Medical studies have shown changes in the blood-cholesterol of children and adolescents whose parents smoke. These alterations are predictors of atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries and a leading cause of coronary heart disease.
With more attention being given to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, we can expect more restrictions on smoking in public areas. Proposals have been considered that would label secondhand smoke a Class A carcinogen, or cancer producer. This would put passive smoke in the same category as mainstream smoke inhaled directly by smokers.
Many public areas, such as airplanes, restaurants, office buildings, and other workplaces, already have restrictions on smoking. Of course, it’s not possible to restrict smoking in private settings, such as homes and cars.
To protect yourself, you can avoid settings where heavy smoking is taking place. You can talk with your family members and friends who smoke and ask them not to smoke in your presence. Express your concerns about the risks to your health that their smoking causes.
Perhaps smoking will never disappear entirely. But as people learn more about the dangers of secondhand smoke, and as smokers become more sensitive to those dangers, perhaps some of those 53,000 deaths can be prevented.