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Updated 26 August 2013

How passive smoking hurts

Research shows that non-smokers who inhale second-hand smoke suffer many of the diseases of active smoking.

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Linda and Ian adore their children. Only the best is good enough for five-year-old Danny and baby Emma. They spend a lot of quality time with them, doing all the things parents would like to do to stimulate their offspring’s intellectual potential.

Linda is a smoker, but restricts her smoking to the living rooms and kitchen. She does not smoke in the car when Danny and Emma are with her and never in the kids’ rooms.

She was shocked when her GP informed her that Danny had already inhaled the equivalent of 102 packets of cigarettes by his fifth birthday because he is living in the same house as a smoking parent. And that both Danny and Emma have an increased risk of asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases due to their exposure to second-hand smoke.

Just in the UK, more than 17 000 children are hospitalised every year due to respiratory problems caused by their exposure to parents' smoke. Yet, a UK survey found that about half of smokers still think that smoking "can't really be all that dangerous".

Even though smoking has been restricted in South African schools, public places, on public transportation, in restaurants and at work, many South Africans are still exposed to second-hand smoke in their homes.

Greater levels of toxic chemicals

Passive, or second-hand, smoke can be described as a combination of smoke from the tip of a burning cigarette (side-stream smoke) and smoke exhaled by a smoker (mainstream smoke). Nearly 85% of the smoke in a room results from side-stream smoke.

Second-hand smoke contains all the same cancer-causing, toxic chemicals that the smoker inhales, but at greater levels. Tests on tobacco smoke found that side-stream smoke has more tar and other cancer causing chemicals than mainstream smoke, according to the Cancer Association of South Africa.

Second-hand smoke contaminants that lurk in household dust and on furniture can expose children to levels that are equivalent to several hours of active smoking.

A recent American study found that the children of parents who step outside for a smoke are still exposed to the harmful effects of passive smoking. These children had eight times more nicotine in their bodies than those whose parents didn't smoke.

No-smoking rooms in restaurants do not effectively protect against passive smoking either.

An Australian study found that there is little difference in levels of atmospheric nicotine and particulate matter between separate no-smoking rooms and designated no-smoking areas. At the most, these rooms halve levels of second-hand smoke, which is much less than non-smokers might reasonably expect.

Passive smoking could have a direct and immediate impact on quality of life, by causing eye irritation, headache, cough, sore throat, dizziness and nausea. Long-term exposure has been linked to asthma, heart disease, lung cancer, infertility, impotence and tooth decay. A closer look reveals interesting facts.

Dangers to asthma sufferers

Passive smoking is particularly harmful to people who suffer from asthma, as it damages the tiny hair-like structures in the airways called cilia. Cilia play an important role in ridding the airways of dust and mucus. Smoke also causes the lungs to produce more mucus than normal.

Asthma sufferers who are exposed to second-hand smoke are more inclined to suffer from wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Children are especially at risk as their airways are more compact and the side effects of passive smoking affect them faster.

Second-hand smoke has also been linked to a number of other respiratory health problems, including pneumonia, sinus infection and impaired lung function. A study found that in households where both parents smoke, children have a 72 percent increased risk of respiratory illnesses.

Damage to the heart

As little as 30 minutes of exposure to second-hand smoke can damage a non-smoker's heart and increases the risk of heart disease by 30%.

The toxins exhaled by smokers cause decreased oxygen to the heart, increased blood pressure and heart rate, increased blood clotting and damage to the cells that line coronary arteries and other blood vessels.

A Japanese study found that side-stream and mainstream smoke had almost no effect on the hearts of people who regularly smoked, since smoking had already lowered the function of their hearts. However, short-term exposure to passive cigarette smoke had a significant impact on the hearts of non-smokers.

Cancer risks

Several studies have indicated that secondary smoke can cause lung cancer in non-smoking spouses of heavy smokers as well as in non-smokers exposed to smoking in the workplace.

A comprehensive study found that non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke had a lung-cancer risk 18 to 32 percent higher than those not exposed, with risks increasing proportionate to the length of exposure. It is estimated that a woman who has never smoked has a 24% greater risk of lung cancer if she lives with a smoker.

Second-hand smoke seems to stimulate tumour growth and angiogenesis, the abnormal formation of new blood vessels thought to encourage cancer growth by providing small tumours with the blood supply they need in order to thrive and spread.

Passive smoking linked to impotence, infertility

Middle-aged men who are heavily exposed to second-hand smoke have nearly twice the risk of impotence as those who breathe fresh air, research shows.

Being around a smoker can also significantly reduce a woman's chance of becoming pregnant. An aspirant dad who smokes 20 cigarettes or more per day cuts his partner's chance of successful conception by 34%.

A woman who smokes and is exposed to others' smoke can be expected to have the greatest delays in trying to become pregnant, according to British research.

 
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