Most cigarette smokers know the dangers of tobacco. After all, the Surgeon General stamps a warning right on the pack. But what about the people sitting next to the smoker? What about his friends and coworkers? His children? Secondhand smoke doesn’t come with a warning label. If it did, more smokers might try harder to kick their addiction.
According to the best current estimates, secondhand smoke kills up to 73,000 adult Americans every year, making it the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the country. (Not surprisingly, firsthand smoke leads the list.) Most of the deaths are from heart disease — more than 69,600 a year — but lung cancer also takes a major toll, killing another 3,400. Secondhand smoke can also aggravate allergies, trigger asthma attacks and migraines, and increase vulnerability to colds and other respiratory infections, according to the Mayo Clinic.
A Toxic Blend
Secondhand smoke isn’t quite as toxic as firsthand smoke, but that’s small comfort. It still contains over 4,000 chemicals that have no business in your body, including carbon monoxide, a gas often used in suicides, and 40 cancer-causing agents, including benzopyrene, a potent cancer-inducing chemical. Interestingly, internal documents from Brown and Williamson show that tobacco companies knew about these dangerous compounds as early as 1975 — years before public health experts recognized the hazards of secondhand smoke.
Citing the fact that secondhand smoke increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer by about 30 percent, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office issued a report in 2006 that stated there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. And like any other poison, secondhand smoke is most deadly at high levels of exposure. Picture a woman sitting in an enclosed room with her husband. If he smokes a pack a day for 55 years, her risk for lung cancer will be roughly six times higher than normal, according to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
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