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What are the Effects of Second Hand Smoke on Health?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

The effects of second hand smoke on health, in general, are similar to many of the effects of direct smoking on a person’s health. An adult living with a smoker runs an increased risk of lung cancer and other health problems related to smoking, such as heart disease. There is also evidence that indicates that pregnant women exposed to second hand smoke may have an increased chance of complications such as having a baby with low birth weight. There are also negative effects of second hand smoke on health with regard to children and infants living with a parent who smokes.

Second hand smoke, also called environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), is smoke produced by a person who is smoking tobacco. This type of smoke is typically referred to as either mainstream, which is exhaled by a smoker, or sidestream, which comes from the tip of a lit cigarette. It is typically a concern for others who are near a smoker, and this inhalation of smoke from another person is called involuntary smoking or passive smoking. A great deal of research indicates that the effects of this second hand smoke on health are just as detrimental as the effects of smoking itself on a person’s health.

Smoking cigarettes can cause a variety of health problems including cancer, heart disease and emphysema.
Smoking cigarettes can cause a variety of health problems including cancer, heart disease and emphysema.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemical compounds, and at least 200 of these are poisonous, with 50 found to be carcinogenic or cancer-causing. Someone within close proximity to a smoker is likely to inhale nearly as much smoke as the smoker inhales directly from the cigarette, and the effects of this second hand smoke on health are quite destructive. There have been a number of studies that indicate second hand smoke can cause lung cancer and increase the risk of heart disease.

Secondhand smoke can harm children, so mothers are advised to kick the habit.
Secondhand smoke can harm children, so mothers are advised to kick the habit.

According to the American Cancer Society, there are an estimated 3,400 deaths each year in the US from lung cancer due to the effects of second hand smoke on health. There are also about 46,000 deaths each year due to heart disease caused by exposure to second hand smoke. Pregnant women who inhale second hand smoke can negatively impact the well-being of their unborn child, and chemicals in second hand smoke have been found to pass into the breast milk of a woman who is nursing. While research is ongoing, there is some evidence to indicate that second hand smoke could also cause breast cancer.

Second hand smoke contains chemicals that can pass into breast milk.
Second hand smoke contains chemicals that can pass into breast milk.

Children and infants are especially susceptible to the negative impact of second hand smoke on health. While adults may choose to smoke or not, and choose to surround themselves with smokers, the child of a smoker may not have such a choice. According to a US Surgeon General’s report in 2006, second hand smoke can increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), cause severe asthma attacks, and create other respiratory problems in children and infants.

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