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Deadly Second-Hand Smoke

Second-hand smoke affects virtually everyone–whether at home, at work, at school, in restaurants, theaters or bars. Second-hand smoke is a proven health threat to the young and old, from all walks of life, in all areas of this country and the world.

What is second-hand smoke?

Second-hand smoke is the smoke that individuals breathe when they are located in the same airspace as smokers. It is a complex combination of more than 4,000 chemicals. It includes irritants and systemic poisons such as hydrogen cyanide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia and formaldehyde. It also contains 43 known carcinogens and mutagens such as arsenic, chromium, nirtosamines and benzo(a)pyrene. Many of the chemicals, such as nicotine, cadmium and carbon monoxide, damage reproductive processes. Second-hand smoke is a major indoor air pollutant. It has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a "class A" or human carcinogen for which there is no safe level of exposure.

How does second-hand smoke affect my health?

Non-smokers who breathe second-hand smoke suffer many of the same diseases as regular smokers. Heart disease deaths as well as lung and nasal sinus cancers have been causally linked with second-hand smoke exposure. Exposure of non-smoking women to second-hand smoke during pregnancy reduces fetal growth, and postnatal exposure of infants to second-hand smoke greatly increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Tobacco smoke also causes immediate effects such as eye and nasal irritation, headache, sore throat, dizziness, nausea, cough and respiratory problems.

What effect does second-hand smoke have on children?

Second-hand smoke causes a wide variety of adverse health effects in children, including bronchitis and pneumonia, development and exacerbation of asthma and middle ear infections. Children's lungs are smaller and their immune systems are less developed, which make them more likely to develop respiratory infections triggered by second-hand smoke. Because they are smaller and breathe faster than adults, they breathe in more harmful chemicals per pound of weight than an adult would in the same amount of time. Finally, children have less choice than adults. Infants and children cannot ask to leave a smoke-filled room if they want to.

Studies of the health effects of second-hand smoke on children found that exposure to tobacco smoke--

  • Causes an increase in bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses.
  • Causes both acute and chronic middle-ear infections. A 1996 study suggested that 13 percent of ear infections in the United States were caused by tobacco smoke.
  • Triggers asthma attacks in children who already have asthma and some researchers have concluded that it actually induces asthma in healthy children.

What is the best way to eliminate second-hand smoke?

At home--The best place to begin the fight against second-hand smoke is right in your own home. Make your home smoke-free. Let your loved ones and visitors know that you care about their health and your own. Place signs reminding your guests that they are in a smoke-free area.

At work–Advocate for smoke-free workplaces. If your own workplace is not yet smoke-free, contact employee groups, management, building owners, etc., and let them know how smoking restrictions at the workplace can benefit everyone. There are many good reasons for protecting employee's health and creating workplaces free from second-hand smoke:

  • Employee health, productivity and morale is higher in a smoke-free workplace.
  • Smoking restrictions encourage some employees to smoke less or even quit smoking altogether, leading to lower absenteeism, lower health care costs and increased productivity.
  • Smoke-free workplaces mean reduced cleaning costs, less damage to furniture and equipment, and a lower risk of fire.
  • Smoke-free workplaces often reduce the risks from other industrial hazards, particularly from chemical products. In many workplaces, smoking is a serious fire and safety hazard.
  • Smoke-free workplaces can help employers avoid smoking-related worker's compensation claims.

In the community–Support local smoke-free businesses and restaurants and encourage establishments that are not yet smoke-free to adopt a smoke-free policy. In Illinois, more than 2,500 restaurants have joined the Illinois Smoke-Free Restaurant Recognition Program sponsored by the Illinois Department of Public Health and local health departments. Locations of smoke-free restaurants in your community can be found on the Department's Web site If your favorite restaurant isn't smoke-free, let the owner know that the chef's specialty would taste even better without tobacco smoke!


More information about second-hand smoke can be obtained by contacting the following organizations:

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

American Academy of Otolaryngology- Head and Neck Surgery

American Lung Association