Secondhand Smoke: What Is It?
By Sungme Park
With the recent public smoking ban proposal by the Mayor Bloomberg, public knowledge and concern over the secondhand smoke issue is rapidly increasing. Yet, many people still do not know exactly what secondhand smoke is, or how it can negatively affect non-smokers.
According to the American Lung Association Secondhand smoke, also known as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), is defined as "a mixture of smoke from the burning end of a cigarette, pipe or cigar and smoke exhaled from the lungs of smokers." ETS contaminates the air and is retained in clothing and hair. More importantly, it represents a dangerous health hazard. Over 4,000 different chemicals have been identified in ETS, and at least 43 of these chemicals cause cancer.
Secondhand smoke contains substances that irritate the lining of the lung and other tissues, and is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a cause of lung cancer. An estimated 3,000 non-smoking lung cancer patients die each year. Because ETS can damage developing organs, such as the lungs and brain, this rate is even higher for children under 5 years of age. However, while approximately 26% of the population are smokers in the United States, 50 to 67% of children less than five years of age live with at least one of these smokers.
Unfortunately, the harmful effects of secondhand smoke can start before birth. According to the U.S. Public Health Services, when pregnant women smoke, pregnancy complications--such as the embryo becoming implanted in the fallopian tube, the placenta attaching too low in the uterus or separating from the uterine wall before delivery--increase. There is also more risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and chronic disabilities such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and sudden infant death syndrome--the major cause of death in infants between one month and one year of age.
Exposure to ETS also decreases lung efficiency and impairs lung function in children of all ages. According to Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, secondhand smoke can "aggravate sinusitis, rhinitis, cystic fibrosis, and chronic respiratory problems such as cough and postnasal drip." It also increases the number of children's colds and sore throats. In children under two years of age, ETS exposure increases the likelihood of bronchitis and pneumonia. In fact, a study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that "ETS causes 150,000 to 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections each year in infants and children under 18 months of age." These illnesses result in as many as 15,000 hospitalizations. Children of parents who smoke half a pack a day or more are at nearly double the risk of hospitalization for a respiratory illness.
Moreover, the secondhand smoke can also infect the ears as well as the respiratory system. The head and neck specialists at American Academy of Otolaryngology say the risks of ear infections on a child and the duration of the illness can be increased by secondhand smoke. According to the Academy, inhaled smoke "irritates the Eustachian tube, which connects the back of the nose with the middle ear. This causes swelling and obstruction which interferes with pressure equalization in the middle ear, leading to pain, fluid and infection." Ear infections are the most common cause of children's hearing loss. When they do not respond to medical treatment, the surgical insertion of tubes into the ears might be required.
Still, many smokers reject the harmful results shown by the studies on secondhand smoking, saying that the danger is overrated. They argue that junk science and politics have led secondhand smoke to be known as a carcinogen - a cancer-causing agent. "There is no factual evidence," says Dr. Ken Carr, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute's smoking and health program. "If there is a risk, it is so small that present methods can't even measure it." However, when asked how many public health experts agree with him, Carr said, "There aren't that many. Most of them support anti-smoking campaign."
As numerous studies and scientific findings show that the secondhand smoke in fact does impair the health of non-smokers, especially children, strong regulatory measures must be supported in order to protect innocent victims from getting smoke-related diseases, such as lung cancer.
Perhaps it is time to think about what we can do about these findings. The excuse, "I'm not hurting anybody but myself," no longer rings true. Our children's healthy development depends on our willingness to stop public smoking.
For more information on secondhand smoke, contact the American
Respiratory Alliance at 800-220-1990; or other help lines:
800-4-CANCER, 800-LUNG-USA or 877-PA HEALTH. On the Internet:
www.quitnet.org or www.lungsusa.org
(click on Freedom From Smoking).
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