What Is Environmental Tobacco Smoke?

Published December 30, 2020
What Is Environmental Tobacco Smoke? - Secret Nature

Up until the 1950s, doctors, celebrities, and scientific researchers insisted that smoking tobacco wasn’t harmful. In fact, the dominant viewpoint suggested that smoking cigarettes was beneficial to your health.

We’ve learned a lot since then. Not only does tobacco smoke hurt smokers, but it also hurts the people around them. Learn what environmental tobacco smoke is, and find out how to eliminate this commonly overlooked menace.

What does environmental tobacco smoke mean?

Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) is tobacco smoke that is released into the environment. Unless a smoker inhales incinerated tobacco in a completely sealed enclosure, ETS will spread throughout indoor and outdoor areas.

Both smoke emitted by burning tobacco products and tobacco smoke exhaled by smokers contribute to ETS. Also known as secondhand smoke or passive smoke, ETS is most harmful in indoor areas.

ETS can also spread throughout outdoor environments, harming individuals who occupy smoke-infested areas. Home to thousands of chemicals, environmental tobacco smoke contains at least 43 known carcinogens.

What are the three types of tobacco smoke?

Scientists have identified three major types of tobacco smoke:

1. Mainstream tobacco smoke

Mainstream tobacco smoke (MS) is the type of smoke that enters a smoker’s lungs. Since it is only filtered by the fiberglass filter attached to a cigarette, it is the most harmful type of tobacco smoke.

2. Sidestream tobacco smoke

Sidestream tobacco smoke (SS) is produced by the burning tip of a cigarette. It is not inhaled in considerable concentrations by the smoker, and it is diluted by the surrounding air.

Certain harmful chemicals found in tobacco smoke are broken down by total incineration. Since a cigarette’s burning tip usually doesn’t cause complete incineration, SS contains high concentrations of 2-naphthylamine, N-nitrosodimethylamine, 4-aminobiphenyl, and carbon monoxide.

3. Environmental tobacco smoke

ETS is composed of approximately 15% mainstream tobacco smoke and 85% sidestream tobacco smoke. Both smokers and non-smokers are harmed by ETS.

Is environmental tobacco smoke harmful?

ETS is profoundly harmful to both smokers and non-smokers who are exposed to this environmental contaminant. Since ETS is primarily composed of sidestream smoke, it exposes both smokers and non-smokers to chemicals that are not present in mainstream smoke in considerable concentrations.

Exposure to ETS can cause:

  • Lung cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Other forms of cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Birth defects
  • Respiratory irritation
  • & other harmful effects

ETS is most harmful in situations in which:

  • Smoking occurs indoors
  • Ventilation is limited
  • Individuals stay in areas affected by ETS for long durations

However, ETS can also be harmful outside, in well-ventilated areas, and when individuals are only briefly exposed to environmental tobacco smoke. The harmful effects of ETS accumulate over time, and repeated exposure is most likely to cause severely harmful effects.

What is the main pollutant in tobacco smoke?

Most experts consider carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrogen cyanide to be the most harmful pollutants in tobacco smoke. However, tobacco smoke contains hundreds of different chemicals.

Some of these chemicals are naturally produced by burning tobacco. Most, however, are produced by the incineration of additives included in tobacco cigarettes.

Here’s a list of the most prominent harmful chemicals present in environmental tobacco smoke:

  • Carbon monoxide
  • Hydrogen cyanide
  • Formaldehyde
  • Arsenic
  • Ammonia
  • Lead
  • Benzene

Dangers of carbon monoxide in ETS

Carbon monoxide prevents your cells from absorbing oxygen. Inhaling carbon monoxide in environmental tobacco smoke increases concentrations of carbon monoxide in your blood, reducing the oxygenation of your tissues.

Dangers of hydrogen cyanide in ETS

Like carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide acts as a cellular asphyxiant. Hydrogen cyanide is so effective at causing cell death that it was used as a tool of execution throughout the 20th century.

Dangers of nitrogen oxides in ETS

Nitrogen oxides are only found in sidestream tobacco smoke, which is the main component of ETS. These substances damage your respiratory system and lead to chronic lung disease.

How can we prevent environmental tobacco smoke?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have released guidelines for the prevention of environmental tobacco smoke. Obviously, the best way to reduce ETS is to stop smoking, and the CDC provides specific steps that should be taken to encourage tobacco use cessation:

Smoking bans and restrictions

Preventing tobacco use in workplaces and public spaces will eliminate common points of ETS exposure and incentivize smokers to quit.

Community education to reduce home exposure

Educating families about the dangers of ETS will reduce smoking at home and incentivize smoking cessation.

Increasing the price of tobacco

Making tobacco less affordable will make it harder for younger people to access cigarettes and incentivize smoking cessation in lower-income populations.

Tobacco industry restrictions

Reducing the scope of tobacco advertising and forcing tobacco producers to manufacture cleaner tobacco products will prevent tobacco initiation and make ETS less harmful.

Additional approaches

Beyond following the CDC’s guidelines, we can also take common-sense approaches to reducing the impact of environmental tobacco smoke. De-normalizing tobacco usage, for instance, or convincing smokers to only smoke outside, can reduce passive smoke exposure.

Additionally, switching from smoking to vaping eliminates the threat of ETS. While vape juice still contains nicotine, which is harmful to the user, nicotine vapes do not produce environmental tobacco smoke.

Environmental tobacco smoke FAQs

Let’s wrap things up with answers to commonly asked environmental tobacco smoke questions:

1. What is the safest cigarette to smoke?

There is no such thing as a safe tobacco cigarette. Any type of incinerated tobacco contains carbon monoxide, tar, and other harmful substances.

Some cigarettes are, however, relatively safer when compared to alternatives. Additive-free cigarettes that contain organically grown tobacco include fewer harmful chemicals.

Just because a cigarette is additive-free, however, doesn’t mean it’s free of the chemicals that are inherent to tobacco. The safest way to smoke tobacco is to not smoke tobacco at all.

2. Which cigarette has the highest nicotine?

No recent studies have been conducted to determine the nicotine content of contemporary cigarettes. As a result, it is unclear which cigarettes currently on the market contain the highest levels of nicotine.

Within the context of environmental tobacco smoke, however, nicotine content is not of much importance. The majority of the nicotine present in tobacco cigarettes is contained in mainstream tobacco smoke, which only makes up a small portion of ETS.

While addictive and harmful to your cardiovascular system, nicotine is also one of the least harmful substances present in tobacco smoke. As a result, choosing a low-nicotine cigarette will not significantly reduce the harm caused by smoking tobacco.

3. What age group is most affected by environmental tobacco smoke?

A 2012 study found that children are most harmed by environmental tobacco smoke. While ETS has mainly been eliminated from workplaces, many parents still smoke cigarettes at home, in their cars, or in other spaces that they share with their children.

This study found that ETS exposure in children can cause:

  • Respiratory illness
  • Respiratory infections
  • Neurobehavioral problems
  • Death

In the fight against environmental tobacco smoke, it is most important to prevent ETS exposure in children. The best way to do so is to incentivize parents to stop smoking.

Stamping out ETS

Tobacco cigarettes do nothing but harm. Fiberglass filters pollute our streets and waterways, mainstream tobacco smoke harms smokers, and passive smoke hurts those around them.

The only way to truly end the danger of environmental tobacco smoke is to stop smoking tobacco cigarettes. With safer alternatives readily available, there’s no reason to stick with this bad habit.

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