Secondhand smoke doesn’t just smell nasty. “It makes people sick and it’s deadly,” says Dr. Normal Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. More than 7,000 chemicals have been identified in secondhand smoke, reports the National Cancer Institute. Of those at least 250 are harmful, including hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide and ammonia. Some 69 of the toxic chemicals in the smoke cause cancer, making it a known carcinogen.
Each year an estimated 3,000 people die of lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke. Even if you don’t smoke, living with a smoker ups your chances of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent. It can also increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke as well as breast and other cancers and, if you’re a woman, peripheral artery disease. Smoking a few cigarettes a week or breathing in secondhand smoke may increase your chances of not only developing lung cancer but also chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Secondhand smoke also may cause chronic rhinosinusitis.
A sobering body of research is also uncovering associations between secondhand smoke and various childhood health conditions. The recent 2001-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of children and adolescents ages 8 to 15 reported an association between exposure to secondhand smoke and mental health issues such as major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and conduct disorder. Canadian researchers recently reported that preteens who are exposed to secondhand smoke develop symptoms of nicotine dependence. Kids with flu who inhale cigarette smoke are more likely to be admitted to the ICU. Boys who live with a smoker may have higher blood pressure. Exposure to smoke is associated with an increased risk of hearing loss in adolescents. The list goes on. “The more you breathe in, the more risk goes up,” says Dr. Edelman. “If you look at laboratory studies, you can see just how potent this stuff is.”