Be Proactive About Secondhand and Thirdhand Smoke


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

Given that almost 85 percent of Americans don’t smoke cigarettes, the odds are pretty high that you’re among that non-smoking group.  

If you do not smoke, you should be justifiably proud for doing something so important as to protect your health as well as the health of your friends, family and loved ones.  And if you are a nonsmoker who is primarily around nonsmokers, it might be easy to believe that you’ve pretty much eliminated the health risks of smoking from your life. Unfortunately, you may be wrong  - especially if any of your coworkers smoke. 

A recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested that almost 20 percent of nonsmoking workers in the U.S. are exposed to secondhand smoke while on the job.  If you happen to be part of that 20 percent – even if only occasionally – you can still be at risk for such smoking-related health issues as heart disease, lung cancer and even stroke. 

 Inhaling the smoke others exhale, or that wafts off the end of a lit cigarette, has been linked to some 41,000 nonsmoker deaths during 2013 and 2014, the most recent years studied by the CDC. Looking back since the original Surgeon General’s Report on smoking in 1964, the number of adult nonsmokers who have died because of secondhand smoke exposure is estimated at 2.5 million.  The issue is so serious that researchers have described secondhand smoke at the workplace as “an important public health issue” and “one of the top occupational hazards that contributes substantially to the prevalence of occupational cancer among nonsmokers.”  

It’s also important to know that some occupations carry a much higher risk of being exposed to secondhand smoke.  For example, while around 10 percent of people in general reported being exposed frequently to secondhand smoke, up to 65 percent of people working in the commercial and industrial machinery and equipment repair report exposure.  Looking at absolute numbers, the study reported that close to 3 million workers in the construction industry reported secondhand smoke exposure. The researchers pointed out that the highest number of exposed workers tended to be in industries that are unlikely to be covered by smoke-free workplace laws and regulations, or in states and municipalities where none or few smoking regulations exist. The study did not include e-cigarettes or “vaping,” which require additional study (but you should not assume inhaling secondhand smoke from them is “safe”). 

The impact of secondhand smoke, which is also known as passive smoking or environmental tobacco smoke, goes far beyond adults in the workplace.  With some 7,000 chemicals – many of which are toxic and 70 of which have been shown to cause cancer – it’s not a surprise that secondhand smoke can carry as many risks, if not more, than first hand smoking.  The reality is that there is no risk-free level of exposure – any exposure can put your health at risk no matter your age and no matter where the exposure occurs. In addition to heart disease, lung cancer and stroke, secondhand smoke can also do the following:

  • Cause more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, impaired lung function, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in children
  • Increase the risk of mental health problems or learning disabilities in children
  • Impact the female reproductive system resulting in low birth-weight infants (first hand smoking by pregnant women causes up to 1,000 infant deaths a year)
  • Have immediate adverse effects on a nonsmoker’s blood and blood vessels which could increase their risk of heart attack
  • Contribute to increased risk for cancers of the larynx, pharynx, nasal sinuses, brain, bladder, rectum, breast and stomach

While secondhand smoke and thirdhand smoke (the smoke and particles in smoke that cling to clothes, form a residue on furniture and other surfaces, and that remain on a smoker’s body itself) pose a health risk for everyone, unfortunately some groups are impacted more than others.  These include non-Hispanic Black Americans (nearly half of Black nonsmokers in the U.S. are exposed to secondhand smoke); Mexican American nonsmokers (nearly a quarter of whom are exposed to secondhand smoke); and lower-income individuals (more than 40 percent people living below the poverty line are exposed to secondhand smoke). 

How to be Proactive

The best way to minimize the risk of second and thirdhand smoke is to avoid it all together and encourage legislation and regulations that mandate truly smoke-free work and living areas.  The latter is important since research has clearly shown that there is basically no difference in the health risk level of sitting, for example, in the no smoking versus smoking section of a restaurant where smoking is still permitted or living in an apartment in a multifamily residence that allows smoking.  

This is because smoke can – and does – readily travel through air ducts, in stairwells, in between walls and, in the case of a restaurant from one section to another.  And limiting smoking to an outdoor section also does very little to protect nonsmokers inside since smoke can travel through the air intake vents (this is why many buildings now have “no smoking within … feet” signs near their entrances and air intakes).  

Other steps you can  take to protect your health as well as your family’s from second and third hand smoke include the following:

  • If you still smoke, quit, This is the single most important thing you can do to protect your family. (For help quitting, check out this pH Labs blog) since the U.S. Surgeon General estimates that living with a person who smokes increases the chance of lung cancer by 20% to 30%
  • Do not allow anyone to smoke anywhere near or in your home (so the answer to “can I smoke on your balcony” is a resounding “no”)
  • Do not  allow anyone to smoke in your car – even with the windows open
  • Double check and insist your child´s daycare facility is 100 percent smoke free or look for an alternative – and do the same with schools if possible
  • Only patronize smoke-free establishments if your state or municipality still allows smoking in public spaces
  • Talk with your children about the risks of secondhand smoke and tell them what they can do to avoid it

Enjoy your healthy life!


The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.