Secondhand Smoke: Why It's A REALLY Big Deal And How To Stay Safe

When we breathe cigarette smoke, we’re exposed to more than 2,500 chemicals, including hazards such as cadmium, formaldehyde, benzene, benzo[a]pyrene, lead, nitrosamines, and ammonia.

Maybe you’re not specifically up on all of these substances and what they do. Suffice to say: secondhand smoke can be harmful, especially to children, and has been linked to allergies, asthma, increased cancer risk, birth defects, low birth weights, and sudden infant death syndrome. Nearly 60% of children aged 3 to 11 years are exposed to secondhand smoke, and it’s believed to be responsible for approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year.

There’s also the issue of so-called “thirdhand smoke,” the toxic residues that smoking leaves behind in dust and on clothes, furnishings, walls, bedding and other surfaces. These residues accumulate over time and are difficult to clean. Unlike secondhand smoke, they can’t be removed by ventilation. They also remain even after smoking has ceased. Thirdhand smoke is still being studied, but experts believe it may interact with other typical indoor air pollutants to create a uniquely toxic threat.

Here’s how to protect you and your family from secondhand and thirdhand smoke:

1. If you smoke, please quit. Products like nicotine patches and gum can curb cravings. For tips on quitting, download Clearing the Air: Quit Smoking Today, published by the National Cancer Institute.

2. Ban smoking in your home and cars.

3. Don’t rely on ventilation systems and air purifiers—they cannot filter nor circulate air well enough to eliminate secondhand smoke.

4. Blowing smoke away from children, going into another room to smoke, or opening a window won’t cut it. They’re better than nothing but not by much.

5. As a rule of thumb, treat smoking in a room as you would an insecticide application: ventilate by opening windows and using fans for hours before readmitting children.

6. Avoid taking children to places where smoking is permitted, especially smaller enclosed spaces with a number of people smoking and with little or no ventilation.

7. After you’ve been around smokers, change your clothes before contact with your children, and wash your hair if possible.

8. Insist that anyone who smells of smoke refrain from hugging or playing with your kids. This includes babysitters, grandparents, and other caretakers.

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