Weekly check up: The dangers of secondhand smoke

Walking by the entrance to Gelman Library or any residence hall, it’s commonplace to encounter a cloud of cigarette smoke at the door. Most students have been exposed to secondhand smoke on campus, and have heard of the ensuing health dangers. But is secondhand smoke as injurious to your lungs as the media and anti-smoking advocates would have you believe?

According to Student Health Services, the occasional breath of secondhand smoke may not be so bad, but the daily inhalation of someone else’s cigarette fumes is a threat to your health.

“I think the more you’re around (smoke) in more of an enclosed area, it can be harmful,” Student Health’s Outreach Coordinator Susan Haney said, citing medical studies that looked at non-smokers who lived or worked with smokers. “The real risk is spending a lot of time … day after day, year after year, with someone who smokes.”

Secondhand smoke health risks include an increase in many types of respiratory illnesses, such as bronchitis and lung cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute’s Web site, secondhand smoke contains more than 50 carcinogens. Approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths occur each year among adult nonsmokers in the United States as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke, the Web site reported.

But Haney is quick to point out that these numbers are mostly made up of nonsmokers who are consistently surrounded by cigarettes. For the average nonsmoker, being around smokers on occasion does not prove to be a huge health risk, unless there is an existing medical condition that makes one sensitive to cigarette fumes.

“People with asthma can be triggered by being around someone (who smokes) even for a short term,” Haney said.

Nationally, about 18 to 20 percent of college students smoke, and today more people become regular smokers in college rather than high school, when kids traditionally became addicted to nicotine, Haney said.

She added that recent smoking bans, including D.C.’s which went into effect Jan. 1, have helped clear the air indoors, but have created secondhand smoke problems at outdoor entrances.

“The (amount of smokers) appears to be more today because so many more people smoke outdoors now and they cluster in areas,” she said.

“Weekly check up” is a regular feature in the Life section. If you have a health topic you want to know more about, e-mail features@gwhatchet.com.

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