When a smoker lights up, he isn’t the only one in danger. Anyone close enough to inhale his smoke is exposed to tobacco’s many health risks—including cancer.
“The definition of secondhand smoke is basically inhaling the smoke from someone else’s cigarette,” says Maher Karam-Hage, M.D., associate medical director of the Tobacco Treatment Program at MD Anderson.
While some health experts used to debate the risks associated with secondhand smoke, Karam-Hage says that debate has ended. “The evidence of harm is quite solid,” he says. “If you live or work around someone who smokes, you’re exposed.”
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 2.5 million nonsmokers have died from secondhand smoke since 1964.
Apart from cancer, Karam-Hage says heart disease and even ear infections among children are very real risks. A 2014 Surgeon General’s report concludes that, between 2005 and 2009, roughly 34,000 people died of heart disease caused by secondhand smoke.
Those health risks rise the more you’re around a smoker, and the smaller and more enclosed a space you share. Even if a window is open, Karam-Hage says those near a lit cigarette are breathing in toxic fumes.
A New Concern
Even if the smoker you live or work with doesn’t light up when you’re in the room, the remnants of their cigarette habit may still put your health at risk.
“The tar and oils that person is puffing out are sticking to upholstery and furniture and things like that, which leaves the smell,” Karam-Hage says.
Those microscopic smoke particles that leave behind a strong tobacco odor also may have health impacts. “This is referred to as thirdhand smoke,” he says. And while the precise dangers aren’t yet known, Karam-Hage says there’s reason for concern.
“Children playing on carpet or on furniture may be exposed to all of these smoke chemicals,” he explains. “We don’t know the health impacts of that yet. But if you’re smelling something, you’re exposed to something potentially hazardous.”
How to Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones
The most effective step also is the most obvious one: If you’re a smoker, quit. And if someone you spend time with smokes, ask him or her to quit.
If both you and a loved one smoke, Karam-Hage says that compounds your risk.
“It can be very tough to quit if you live with someone who smokes,” he says. “But if you can agree to quit together and encourage each other, that can be very helpful.”
Karam-Hage also warns smokers that smoking near an open window isn’t a good option. “Smoke is pervasive and it flows very quickly,” he says. “If you’re smoking inside with a window open, much of it won’t leave the room.”
He says smoking outdoors near an open window also can result in smoke wafting back inside where it could pose a risk to others.
Smoking in an automobile is arguably the worst place you can light up, he adds. “It’s such a closed space that you’re exposed to your own firsthand, secondhand and thirdhand smoke. So are all the people who share the car with you.”
Clean Up Your Act
If you or whoever used to smoke indoors has quit, the lingering toxins and chemicals could still pose a health risk.
To reduce that risk, Karam-Hage offers the following tips:
- Have your carpets, furniture or car upholstery professionally cleaned to remove residual smoke or toxins.
- Clean all air ducts and replace air conditioning filters in your home or car.
- Wash or replace curtains, blankets and other fabrics that collect tar and other chemicals. Replace the floor mats in your car.
- Wash or repaint your walls and ceiling to remove or control old toxins.
If someone is smoking near you, there are ways to request that they stop . But Karam-Hage says ongoing exposure is the greatest danger when it comes to secondhand and thirdhand smoke. “If we’re living with, driving with or working with someone who is smoking indoors, everyone’s health is at risk.”
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 877-632-6789.