Toss out the tobacco

Photo: Hesham
The fume-filled facts about smoking indoors may encourage you to butt out. Reading about the quality of air in our homes may lead you to believe the contaminants most to be feared are mould spores, radon or volatile organic compounds such as benzene and formaldehyde. However, the worst villain is nothing quite so exotic, according to Dr. Virginia Salares, a senior researcher with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). "Tobacco smoke is the worst indoor air pollutant by far," she says. "If you were to rank them, it would be right on top." Health Canada estimates that more than 45,000 people will die prematurely in Canada due to tobacco use this year - and at least 1,000 of them will be non-smokers. Chemicals in the air Tobacco smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, including tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide and benzene, and at least 50 of these chemicals are known to cause cancer. Any burning organic material like leaves or wood has cancer-causing elements, but most of today's homes don't have to worry about such sources of pollution. Second-hand smoke consists of mainstream smoke, which is the smoke inhaled and exhaled by the smoker, and sidestream smoke, which comes directly from the end of a burning cigarette. Two-thirds of the smoke from a cigarette is not inhaled by the smoker but is released directly into the surrounding environment.According to Health Canada, if you are a non-smoker, exposure to second-hand smoke increases your risk of getting either lung cancer or heart disease by 20 percent. Think of the kids Children are the most vulnerable to the effects of second-hand smoke. Exposure to tobacco smoke aggravates the symptoms of respiratory irritation in young children and is associated with a higher risk of respiratory infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis. Health Canada says that second-hand smoke is also probably a direct cause of asthma if a baby is exposed before the age of 12 months, and contributes to more frequent and severe attacks for older children who already have asthma. More than three times as many infants die from second-hand-smoke-related Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) as from child abuse or homicide, as reported in a 1992 article by D.P. Southall and M.P Samuels published in the British Medical Journal. A 1998 Health Canada study found that 30,230 men and 17,351 women, including 55 boys and 41 girls under the age of one, died as a result of active and passive smoking, as published in a January 1998 issue of the Canadian Journal of Public Health in an article titled "The Mortality Attributable to Tobacco Use in Canada and its Regions" (1998). Exposure to second-hand smoke may even harm a child's ability to think things through. Recently, studies have shown that children who were exposed to tobacco smoke scored lower on tests than children who were not. Health Canada has a lot of information on second-hand smoke. Parents should think again In 2004, Health Canada conducted a survey of 800 parents who smoked. The vast majority considered themselves to be moderately or very knowledgeable about the health effects of second-hand smoke, yet almost 50 percent always or frequently smoke in their own home, and 44 percent always or frequently smoke in the car. "Today, smokers are very respectful of the rules," says Cynthia Callard, a policy advisor with Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. "They go to work and they don't smoke because it will harm their co-workers. They go to a restaurant and they don't smoke because it will bother other diners. Then they go home and smoke inside the house and harm the people they love best. The addiction to tobacco is so powerful that they don't use their best judgement." In that same Health Canada survey of smoking parents, they were asked to identify what steps they have taken to reduce the amount of second-hand smoke in their homes or to reduce its impact on others. The majority used only one method: opening a window. Other actions included using a fan, using air freshener, smoking behind closed doors and using an air purifier. What the experts say "Opening a window or smoking in a closed room is only a half step," says Callard. "It's better than nothing, but not much." Salares says that air purifiers that claim to remove tobacco-based contaminants are not the solution. "They have a limit to what they can take out," she says, "and the filter would get loaded very quickly." As for setting up a special home smoking room with special ventilation, Salares says, "You would need very strong ventilation, and you would need to replace all the air you were taking out, which may mean you are pulling furnace-flu gases back into the house. You'd also lose a lot of heat. It would be very expensive and impractical. Is it worth it? No." The best answer is the simplest one: take it outside. Says Salares, "The most effective solution is always to get rid of the source." Callard points out an added benefit. "If you smoke, your own health is better if you smoke outside because you're not getting second-hand smoke either," she says. "Even for a smoker living alone, I recommend they go outside." Need some motivation. Check out our article Breaking the weed habit found the Health & Nutrition section.