No risk-free exposure level to secondhand smoking - Toxicologist | Sunday Observer
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No risk-free exposure level to secondhand smoking - Toxicologist

10 October, 2021

A recent media report citing a new study at the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, at the David Geffen School of Medicine said that researchers had found that exposure to secondhand smoking increases craving for ex-smokers and is a major obstacle to smokers trying to quit the habit. 

According to them, when a smoker gets exposed to secondhand smoking, a ‘priming’ dose of nicotine to the brain increases nicotine craving in him, adding that this mechanism may explain why adult smokers who get exposed to multiple sources of second hand smoking have difficulty in initiating and maintaining abstinence, compared to smokers without such exposure.  

The Sunday Observer spoke to Emeritus Professor of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, University of Colombo, Dr Ravindra Fernando who has long campaigned against smoking, to explain what secondhand smoking is for the benefit of our readers.

He said, “Secondhand smoking also known as “Environmental tobacco smoke” is the combination of smoke from the burning end of a cigarette and the smoke breathed out by smokers. It is inhaled involuntarily or passively by someone who is not smoking.”

According to him, there are two main ways that environmental tobacco smoke is generated - namely, from the side stream (the burning end) of a cigarette, pipe or cigar or from the exhaled mainstream (the smoke puffed out by smokers) of cigarettes, pipes, and cigars.

Asked what health risks secondhand smoking could pose to human health, he said, “Secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, of which hundreds are toxic and about 70 can cause cancer. It could cause numerous health problems in infants and children, including more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, pneumonia, ear infections and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Secondhand smoke damages the body in different ways. Adults exposed to secondhand smoke may experience:

Cardiovascular (heart, veins and arteries) diseases such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, heart attack, or stroke.

Lung problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and asthma.

Increased risks of lung cancer and cancers in the brain, bladder, stomach, breast and more.

Children exposed to second hand smoke are more likely to experience frequent coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath or other breathing problems, frequent ear infections, frequent and more severe asthma attacks.

Respiratory infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

Damage to eyes (such as cataracts) and teeth (such as tooth decay).

Learning and behavioural problems.

He debunked myths that these severe health risks could be minimised if the level of exposure to this toxic smoke was reduced by the smoker, stressing “There is NO risk free level to exposure from secondhand smoking.”

On protecting ourselves from the toxic fume in public places, he said, “The only way to fully protect yourself and your loved ones is through 100 percent smoke-free environments. Merely opening a window, sitting in a separate area, or using ventilation, air conditioning, or a fan cannot eliminate secondhand smoke exposure.

If someone in your house or restaurant or office or anywhere around you smokes, you are smoking, too. You, too, can get lung cancer and the other diseases now known to be associated with smoking. You, too, are running the same increased risks to become sick and also, incidentally, to die.

He warned that studies have shown damage from secondhand smoke occurs in as little as five minutes: After five minutes, arteries become less flexible, just like they do in a person who is smoking a cigarette. After 20-30 minutes: Blood starts clotting, and fat deposits in blood vessels increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

After two hours: An irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) can develop and trigger a heart attack or other serious cardiac problems. He added that while anyone exposed to it could be affected, secondhand smoke affects unborn children and their mothers. Lower amounts of oxygen available for the baby can increase fetal heart rates or lower the birth weight. Women may experience miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or ectopic pregnancy.

“There is no treatment for inhaling secondhand smoke. If you are regularly in an area with smokers, find a smoke-free place,” he said.