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No Safe Level of Exposure to Tobacco Smoke

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“The harmful effects of tobacco smoke do not end with the users of tobacco… Every inhalation of tobacco smoke exposes our children, our families, and our loved ones to dangerous chemicals that can damage their bodies and result in life-threatening diseases such as cancer and heart disease.”

--Regina Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General, How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease (2010)


Since 1964, U.S. Surgeons General  have issued more than 30 reports detailing the hazards of tobacco smoke exposure.  The most recent report, How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease, issued in 2010, is a comprehensive and scientific discussion of how tobacco smoke exposures damage the human body, based on decades of research.

The picture that is clearly and consistently emerging from these studies is that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke.  According to the Surgeon General, tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, hundreds of which are toxic, and at least 69 of which cause cancer.  The Surgeon General’s 2010 report shows that the harmful effects of tobacco smoke are immediate: the chemicals are rapidly absorbed by the body, damaging blood vessels, weakening the immune system, and inflaming the delicate lining in the lungs.  For both smokers and nonsmokers, exposure to tobacco smoke increases risk for heart disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, and cancer.   For cancer patients, exposure to tobacco smoke weakens the body’s ability to fight cancer and can promote tumor growth.   For diabetics, exposure to tobacco smoke increases risk of heart and kidney disease, amputation, eye disease, nerve damage, and poor circulation.  Across the nation, more than 440,000 people die every year from diseases related to smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke.

Many people are at least generally familiar with the hazards of firsthand and secondhand smoke.  Less commonly known, but still hazardous to human health, is thirdhand smoke.  Thirdhand smoke consists of the pollutants in tobacco smoke that linger in rooms and react with other compounds found in the indoor environment, long after cigarettes have been extinguished.  According to a 2010 study led by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the reactions between the chemicals in thirdhand smoke and other common indoor pollutants can produce carcinogens for days, weeks, and even months after smoking in the room has stopped.  Contrary to what some may believe, thirdhand smoke is much more than a lingering odor or an aesthetic irritation: it is a health hazard.  Semivolatile compounds from thirdhand smoke settle on indoor surfaces, mix with dust and air, and are absorbed by carpets, upholstery, fabric, or other porous materials commonly found indoors.  Infants and young children are especially at risk for exposure to thirdhand smoke because of common behaviors at their age that include crawling and hand-to-mouth contact, as well as because of their immature respiratory and immune systems.  Nonsmokers who live or work in indoor environments where smoking occurs are also at risk of health complications because of frequent and/or prolonged exposure to both secondhand and thirdhand smoke.

In her preface to How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease, the Surgeon General notes, “The cost [of smoking and exposure to smoke] to the nation is tremendous: a staggering amount is spent on medical care and lost productivity.  But more importantly there is immeasurable cost in human suffering and loss.”