There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.
Secondhand smoke is the combination of smoke from the burning end of a cigarette and the smoke breathed out by smokers. Secondhand smoke contains at least 250 toxic chemicals, including more than 50 that can cause cancer. Some of those cancer causing chemicals include carbon monoxide, ammonia, and formaldehyde, among others. Furthermore, secondhand smoke causes numerous health problems in infants and children, including severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Other health conditions caused by secondhand smoke in adults include heart disease and lung cancer.
Secondhand Smoke Causes Heart Disease
Exposure to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and can cause coronary heart disease. Secondhand smoke causes an estimated 46,000 premature deaths from heart disease each year in the United States among nonsmokers. Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work increase their risk of developing heart disease by 25 to 30%. Furthermore, breathing secondhand smoke interferes with the normal functioning of the heart, blood, and vascular systems in ways that increase the risk of having a heart attack. Even brief secondhand smoke exposure can damage the lining of blood vessels and cause your blood platelets to become stickier. People who already have heart disease are at especially high risk of suffering adverse effects from breathing secondhand smoke and should take special precautions to avoid even brief exposures.
Secondhand Smoke Causes Lung Cancer
Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work increase their risk of developing lung cancer by 20–30%. Secondhand smoke causes an estimated 3,400 lung cancer deaths among U.S. nonsmokers each year. Even brief secondhand smoke exposure can damage cells in ways that set the cancer process in motion. As with active smoking, the longer the duration and the higher the level of exposure to secondhand smoke, the greater the risk of developing lung cancer. Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke are inhaling many of the same cancer-causing substances and poisons as smokers.
Secondhand Smoke Causes SIDS
SIDS is the sudden, unexplained, unexpected death of an infant in the first year of life, and it is the leading cause of death in otherwise healthy infants. Secondhand smoke has been found to increase the risk for SIDS. The risk for SIDS also increases if the mother smokes during pregnancy. Infants who are exposed to secondhand smoke after birth are also at greater risk for SIDS. Chemicals in secondhand smoke appear to affect the brain in ways that interfere with its regulation of infants' breathing. Infants who die from SIDS have higher concentrations of nicotine in their lungs and higher levels of cotinine (a biological marker for secondhand smoke exposure) than infants who die from other causes.
Parents can help protect their babies from SIDS by taking the following three actions:
- Do not smoke when pregnant.
- Do not smoke in the home or around the baby.
- Put the baby down to sleep on its back.
Secondhand Smoke and Children
Secondhand smoke can cause serious health problems in children. Studies show that older children whose parents smoke get sick more often. Their lungs grow less than children who do not breathe secondhand smoke, and they get more bronchitis and pneumonia. Wheezing and coughing are also more common in children who breathe secondhand smoke. Furthermore, secondhand smoke can trigger an asthma attack in children, and the attacks are usually more frequent and severe. Ear infections are also common in children whose parents smoke around them.
Parents can help protect their children from secondhand smoke by taking the following actions:
- Do not allow anyone to smoke near your child.
- Do not smoke or allow others to smoke in your home or car. Opening a window does not protect your children from smoke.
- Use a smoke-free day care center.
- Do not take your child to restaurants or other indoor public places that allow smoking.
- Teach children to stay away from secondhand smoke.
Legislation to Protect the Public's Health
A strong, comprehensive smoke-free indoor air law can protect people from involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke. Connecticut's smoke-free indoor air law protects a large amount of the state’s residents, but also has some significant loopholes.