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Secondhand Smoke: What's the Risk?

While only 20% of the population smokes, many people (including children) continue to be exposed to secondhand smoke. Research has shown that there are harmful effects for those exposed to smoke - even when they don’t smoke themselves. Here is what you need to know about secondhand smoke to help keep your family safe.

What is in cigarette smoke?
Cigarette smoke contains thousands of harmful toxins including some that are known to cause cancer. These toxins move from the lungs into the bloodstream and are carried to all of the body. This is the reason smoking can cause many different kinds of cancer - and not just lung cancer - as well as heart disease. Besides tar and nicotine, cigarette smoke has been found to have:

  • Carbon monoxide (the same stuff that is in car exhaust). Carbon monoxide will attach itself to red blood cells and not let oxygen bind to the cells. This decreases the amount of oxygen that can be carried in the blood. It is especially harmful to the unborn child exposed to smoke, as well as to those with lung and heart disease.
  • Formaldehyde  (used to preserve bodies after death)
  • Arsenic (poison)
  • Cyanide (poison)
  • Numerous other chemicals with names too long to list. While the amount in one cigarette is too low to kill immediately, these chemicals can build up in the body.


What is the risk?
Secondhand smoke has been linked to cancer and heart disease in those who have a heavy smoke exposure in their home or workplace but have never smoked themselves.
Studies have shown that children or spouses exposed to smoke have reduced lung function when compared to those that are not exposed.

Children who live in homes where smoking is allowed indoors and in the car are at risk for allergies, ear infections, asthma and pneumonia. Having a smoking area or room in the house does not help because the smoke will travel through the house. Some states are now banning smoking in cars that are carrying children, after reports showing that in cars with smoking the exposure to the toxins is over 50 times greater even with a window open.

Women who smoke during pregnancy have an increased risk of miscarriage. Babies exposed to secondhand smoke in pregnancy are more likely to have low birth weight and are at higher risk for sudden infant death syndrome. New studies have linked the risk for learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder with smoking during pregnancy.

Do your part to reduce secondhand smoke exposure.

  • If someone in your home smokes, have them go outside. Provide a place away from open doors and windows.
  • Ask your employer to consider a non-smoking policy for the workplace. A non-smoking policy can result in decreased costs for insurance, reduced work and school absenteeism, and will even reduce cleaning expenses for the building.
  • Do not allow anyone to smoke in the car.
  • When you go out to eat, choose non-smoking restaurants. 
  • Support bans on smoking in public places. In states where smoking has been banned, studies did not show decreased restaurant income.
  • Request non-smoking rooms in hotels and motels when traveling.


Reviewed: May 26, 2005
Revised: June 2008

© 2018 American Association for Respiratory Care