Breathing Space

air, smoking, air around us, air quality, smoker

Second Hand Smoke & You

In 2017, legislators in Ohio introduced a bill that could make it illegal for anyone to smoke in the car with a child under the age of 6. In Laguna Beach, the city council officially banned smoking (including e-cigarettes) in public areas across the entire city.

These laws aren’t necessarily designed to keep people from smoking, but rather to protect the millions of Americans who come in contact with secondhand smoke every day. Secondhand smoke, as it turns out, can be even more dangerous than what’s inhaled directly from a cigarette.

To understand just how dangerous secondhand smoke can be and how many smoke particles Americans are truly exposed to, we used a Fluke 985 Particle Counter to observe changes in the air quality when a smoker was nearby. From standing right next to them to being across the street, our study determined how many secondhand smoke air particles linger in the air even at a distance. Continue reading to see what we discovered about how even a stranger with a cigarette could be affecting your health.

What is second hand smoke?

Secondhand smoke is the smoke that has been exhaled by someone smoking, or the smoke that comes from burning tobacco products like cigarettes, pipes and cigars. Secondhand smoke has been found to contain over 7,000 chemicals, 70 of which can cause cancer and hundreds of which are toxic. Many people wonder, “Is secondhand smoke worse than smoking?” However, the answer is that the dangers of tobacco smoke are the same, whether you are the one smoking or being exposed to secondhand smoke. While the secondhand smoke definition includes both the exhaled smoke and the smoke produced from the burning of the product itself, the long term effects of secondhand smoke are similar to those of first hand smoke, no matter where they originate. So, if you are wondering, “Is secondhand smoke worse than first hand?” the answer is that they are both extremely harmful. There is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke.

The Air Around Us

air, smoking, air around us, air quality, smoker

The firsthand effect of smoking on the body has been well-documented by the FDA and CDC. According to the FDA, there are 93 known chemicals inside each cigarette that are either classified as harmful or potentially harmful, and more than 70 of the thousands of chemicals found inside the smoke produced by a lit cigarette have been linked to cancer.

If you’ve ever walked past someone smoking (even at what might seem like a safe distance) and smelled something different in the air, there’s a good reason why. With as much as a 25-foot distance between you and an active cigarette smoker, the quality of the air can be dramatically different.

Based on our study, if you were standing directly next to someone (within 5 feet) while they smoked, the particles in the air created by their lit cigarette would increase by more than 2,237 percent. At a 10-foot distance, the density of those particles would drop to just over 637 percent, and at 15 feet, it would fall to 155 percent. With a 20-foot distance between you and a cigarette smoker, the particles would still be discernible at 126 percent. As we will continue to explore, even with what might feel like a safe distance between you and a smoker, the effects can still be dangerous.

In fact, the CDC has found that secondhand smoke can even move through buildings, infiltrating the hallways, stairwells and other living units. As such, you or your loved ones could experience secondhand smoke symptoms just from living in a building with smokers, even if none of you smoke. Secondhand smoke exposure is measured by testing body fluids to see how much cotinine is present, which is created when the body breaks down the nicotine found in tobacco smoke. Secondhand smoke statistics show that children living in apartment or condo buildings have 45% higher cotinine levels than children living in single family homes.

Why Size Matters

Particle size of various elements compared to tobacco smoke infographic
So what does it mean if you’re standing close enough to breathe in the smoke particles from a cigarette? More than you might think. According to Fluke, the particles produced by secondhand smoke exist in three sizes. At their largest, they can be .05 μm (microns) in scale. That’s the same size as soot produced from burning or combustion, and larger than a particle of carbon black photocopier toner. Particles of smog were only slightly larger, along with dust, dander, bacteria, and cooking oil smoke or grease.

What does that mean to you? Being exposed to secondhand smoke can increase your likelihood of contracting lung cancer by as much as 30 percent, and can raise cholesterol levels, making a person more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke. The effects of secondhand smoke can be even worse for children and infants. The chemicals produced by a lit cigarette can lead to respiratory infections (including bronchitis and pneumonia) in kids, in addition to asthma or a chronic cough. In some instances, secondhand smoke has even been linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Critical Mass

The change in size of tobacco smoke particles by distance infographic

As it turns out, smaller particles produced by cigarette smoke were more potent over longer distances than bigger particles. Of the thousands of particles in the smoke from a lit cigarette, the particles we registered as .5 μm stayed in the air at a higher density even as we moved further away from the smoke source in our experiment. Smog, animal dander, and household dust also registered at a similar particle size.

The cause for variation in these particle sizes results from the more than 7,000 chemicals cigarette smoke produces. That’s a lot to count or even consider, but some of the most dangerous chemicals are ones you might already be familiar with – even if you don’t expect to ingest them. Lead, ammonia, carbon monoxide, acetone, and formaldehyde are just a few of the chemicals a cigarette smoker introduces into their body every time they light up.

No Safe Distance

Air quality changes within a smoker's vicinity by distance infographic

Even if you feel you’re far enough away from a smoker not to be affected by the dangerous (and sometimes deadly) pollutants produced by secondhand smoke, you could be at risk for some of the harmful effects these chemicals create. Even with up to 25 feet between you and someone with a lit cigarette, you could still breathe in 46 percent more particles compared to air without cigarette smoke. 

The damage cigarette smoke causes to the respiratory system can have long-term consequences for both children and adults. The EPA has identified secondhand smoke as a human lung carcinogen (linked to or known to cause cancer) and results in 3,400 deaths among nonsmokers every year. But that isn’t all. Of the more than 30 million Americans suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), about 90 percent are estimated to have been smokers at one point in their lives. Consistent exposure to secondhand smoke can be equally as dangerous and acts as an irritant to the lungs.

The smoke produced by tobacco cigarettes can also be dangerous for people who have asthma or other respiratory conditions. According to the CDC, secondhand smoke – either from the smoker or the cigarette itself – is one of the most common triggers of asthma among both adults and adolescents.

Too Close for Comfort

The particles inhaled when walking past a person smoking tobacco infographic
Live or work with someone who smokes on a regular basis? If so, your exposure to the particles produced by secondhand smoke could be even greater, significantly increasing your risk for health concerns.

With no more than 5 feet between you and a smoker, we found the density of .3 μm particles increased by nearly 1,800 percent. Larger particles – .5 μm and 1 μm – increased as well, by close to 5,000 percent and over 1,300 percent, respectively. What’s more, those particles can even linger on a smoker’s skin and clothing and be released back into the air when disrupted. Studies have shown that children of regular smokers show traces of smoke particles on their skin, even when they aren’t directly exposed to the secondhand smoke themselves.

Referred to as thirdhand smoke, both children and adults can experience health-related symptoms from exposure to these particles over time. When mixed with other naturally occurring airborne chemicals, these lingering microns can combine to form cancer-causing carcinogens and may be extremely difficult to remove from your home or workplace entirely.

Here are additional secondhand smoke statistics regarding how secondhand smoke has affected both children and adults.

  • Since 1964, approximately 2,500,000 nonsmokers have died due to health problems resulting from exposure to secondhand smoke
  • The CDC estimates that approximately 7,300 lung cancer deaths of adult nonsmokers in the United States between 2005 and 2009 were the result of secondhand smoke exposure
  • The CDC estimates that about 34,000 heart disease deaths of adult nonsmokers in the United States between 2005 and 2009 were the result of secondhand smoke exposure
  • Between 2011 and 2012, about 58 million nonsmokers in the United States were exposed to secondhand smoke
  • While exposure to secondhand smoke has decreased in the last 30 years, testing conducted between 2011 and 2012 found that about 25% of nonsmokers still had measurable levels of cotinine

Dangerous Driving

The particles inhaled when driving with a person smoking tobacco infographic
Even if the windows are rolled down in the car, you or your family members could still be exposed to dangerous amounts of chemical components if you’re riding with someone smoking tobacco.

Our study of the smoke particles present in a moving vehicle with an active smoker found that in less than one minute, the number of air particles increased by more than 450 percent, on average. Within one to two minutes of driving, the number of active particles in the car fell to 214 percent, but after two to three minutes, it rose again to over 260 percent. The change in particle concentration may be affected by several factors, including stopping at red lights, making turns, and wind speed.

If you’re driving with a smoker (or smoke yourself), you could be exposed to chemicals that lead to cancer, heart disease, stroke, COPD, asthma, and more. If there’s a child present in the vehicle with you, their odds of being harmfully impacted by the particles present could be even greater. Unlike adults, children may suffer from low respiratory illnesses, stunted lung growth, and even middle ear infections as a result of secondhand smoke.

Breathe Easy

Whether a smoker moves away from you before they light up, rolls down the windows in the car, or even excuses themselves entirely to go outside, our study found you might still be breathing in the thousands of chemicals produced by their lit cigarette. According to the CDC, no level of secondhand smoke exposure is safe, but there could be particularly damaging results when it comes to secondhand smoke and COPD. If you have COPD, it is vital that you avoid secondhand smoke.

At Inogen, we believe that better air quality can lead to a better life. For the millions of Americans who utilize oxygen therapy, our compact, lightweight, and travel-friendly oxygen concentrators are comfortably designed to go wherever life takes you. Intelligent Delivery Technology® adjusts the flow of oxygen and allows you to eliminate the hassle of liquid oxygen systems and tanks. If you or someone you love has a long-term breathing condition and is living with the long-term impact of secondhand smoke on their lungs, Inogen can help. Visit our homepage to learn more or contact us today.


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