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Secondhand smoke a killer to nonsmokers

Most men and women who smoke tobacco are fully aware of the damage they might be doing to their bodies. In addition to increasing their risk for lung cancer, smoking can also increase a person's risk for heart disease and other potentially deadly ailments.

What those men and women might not know is the extent of the damage their smoking is doing to those around them. According to the American Cancer Society, secondhand smoke is responsible for 3,400 lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers each year. Gaining a better understanding of secondhand smoke might help smokers quit once and for all.

What exactly is secondhand smoke?

Also known as environmental tobacco smoke, secondhand smoke is actually a mixture of two forms of smoke that comes from burning tobacco. Smoke that comes from the end of a lighted cigarette, cigar or pipe is known as sidestream smoke, while the smoke a smoker exhales is called mainstream smoke. Compared to mainstream smoke, sidestream smoke has higher concentrations of cancer-causing agents known as carcinogens. Sidestream smoke also contains smaller particles than mainstream smoke, making it easier for sidestream smoke to enter the body's cells.

Do nonsmokers take in nicotine from secondhand smoke?

Nonsmokers who inhale secondhand smoke do take in nicotine in the process. A 1988 report from the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that nicotine is a drug that causes addiction and can cause a short-term increase in blood pressure, heart rate and the flow of blood from the heart. Because nonsmokers who take in secondhand smoke are taking in nicotine, they, too, are susceptible to the aforementioned side effects.

In addition to taking in nicotine, nonsmokers around secondhand smoke are also taking in the thousands of other chemicals secondhand smoke contains. These chemicals include carbon monoxide, which is also found in automobile exhaust, and cadmium, a chemical element commonly used in batteries.

Does secondhand smoke cause other kinds of diseases?

Secondhand smoke is responsible for thousands of deaths each year in the U.S. alone. But secondhand smoke does not only contribute to cancer. In fact, the ACS notes that secondhand smoke is responsible for an estimated 46,000 deaths from heart disease in nonsmokers who live with smokers.

What many people find the most troubling figures associated with secondhand smoke is its impact on children, especially those younger than 18 months of age. The ACS estimates that each year secondhand smoke is responsible for 50,000 to 300,000 lung infections, including pneumonia and bronchitis, in children younger than 18. An additional 750,000 middle ear infections in children can be linked to secondhand smoke.

Studies are ongoing into a possible link between secondhand smoke and breast cancer. Though research is ongoing, the ACS notes that chemicals from tobacco smoke reach breast tissue and have been found in breast milk. However, debate over a possible link between breast cancer and secondhand smoke continues for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that breast cancer risk has not been shown to increase among active smokers.

Where does secondhand smoke pose a problem?

Secondhand smoke is problematic anywhere someone is smoking or has smoked. In fact, the Canadian Cancer Society points out that cigarettes produce roughly 12 minutes of smoke, even though a smoker might only inhale 30 seconds of smoke from the cigarette. As the smoke lingers, even long after a smoker has disappeared, nonsmokers are left to breathe in that smoke.

Smokers who recognize the potentially deadly side effects of their habit should be especially mindful of those side effects when lighting up. Smoking inside a home, for instance, is putting everyone in the home at heightened risk of a host of ailments. Children are especially sensitive to secondhand smoke, and the ACS notes that between 50 to 75 percent of children in the U.S. have detectable levels of cotinine, the breakdown product of nicotine, in their blood. Many public places, including New York City's famed Central Park, have banned smoking, and smoking in the workplace is illegal in many countries.

More information on secondhand smoke is available at www.cancer.org.