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About second hand smoke

Second hand smoke and children's health

Winnipeg Health Region
Published Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Every puff of smoke exhaled by a smoker contains 4,000 chemicals. More than 50 of those chemicals can cause cancer.

People who inhale second hand smoke have experienced the negative effects of smoking without ever smoking themselves. That's why health officials are reminding people to be mindful about avoiding second hand smoke to protect their health and the health of their children.

"Second hand smoke has significant health risks. It's important for people to protect themselves and their children from the possibility of inhaling second hand smoke," says Dr. Sande Harlos, Medical Officer of Health for the Winnipeg Health Region. "It is also important for smokers to know how harmful even a small amount of second hand smoke is so they can protect the health of those around them."

The health impacts of second hand smoke are real. People who live and work in proximity to smokers are at risk of developing lung cancer, heart disease, asthma and emphysema because of consistently inhaling second hand smoke.

For children who are regularly exposed to second hand smoke, they are more prone to ear infections and may experience cognitive difficulty. Babies are at higher risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, asthma and ear infections.

Smoking inside not only puts people we live and spend time with at risk, it also creates an unhealthy living environment. "When people smoke in their home, some of the smoke stays in the house even after the cigarettes are extinguished - in clothes, furniture and walls," says Margie Kvern, Program Specialist, Tobacco Reduction with the Winnipeg Health Region.

The smoke that's been trapped in hair, clothing, furniture and rugs is referred to as "third hand smoke." These toxins also pose a health risk, particularly for young children who may be crawling on the floor or cuddling against clothing that has absorbed smoke.

There are things you can do to limit exposure to second or third hand smoke, such as ensuring smoking takes place outdoors, encouraging smokers to use a specific jacket to smoke in, making your car a no smoking zone and keeping your children away from areas where people smoke.

But the best way to limit second or third hand smoke is to encourage smokers to quit. Click here for more information on quitting smoking.

No safe level

There is no safe level of second hand smoke. No level of ventilation will remove smoke or its chemicals from the air completely. Proximity to smoking - inside or outdoors - still puts people at risk for health concerns. Brief exposures can cause irritation of the eyes and the respiratory tract. Even short exposures can cause worsening of respiratory symptoms in people with underlying conditions such as asthma. Short term exposure can even cause changes to the circulatory system that could lead to a heart attack.

Many people think that if they smoke outside they are not affecting others, but exposure to second hand smoke outdoors can be harmful as well. Under certain conditions, depending on how close you may be to someone who is smoking, number of smokers and wind conditions, levels of second hand smoke in outdoor spaces can be as high as typical levels found inside.

Some people are especially affected by even small amounts of second hand smoke outdoors - such as very young children and people with existing medical conditions, especially heart and lung conditions. So if you do smoke, always do so outside, and avoid smoking outside where it is likely to harm. To do this:

  • keep a respectful distance from other people
  • never smoking near a hospital or other health care facility, a school or on a playground or sports playing field
  • not smoking near building entrances, windows or air intakes, or any other outdoor places where children, older adults or people with health problems may be

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