Unfounded Scares of Secondhand Smoke

Everyday I swallow a pill with rat poison. Millions of other people have been doing the same thing. It is a common drug prescribed as a blood thinner for people with a heart condition. Tuesday I made a routine visit to a cardiology clinic; periodic tests are needed to determine if the level of the drug in my blood is appropriate or needs to be adjusted up or down. While waiting my turn for the test, I picked up a magazine titled Minnesota Health Care, March 2007. Inside the back cover was a full-page ad by ClearWay Minnesota. The entire page was covered with a picture of bugs and the alarmist message—in very large print—that secondhand tobacco smoke contains the same chemicals as insecticides to kill bugs. Then it asks the blatantly scary message “Are you OK with this?” Of course I am OK with this! I burst out laughing, which brought incredulous stares from those around me since medical waiting rooms are usually not sources of hilarity. But not only is it “OK with me” since I am already not frightened by taking a rat poison, I happen to know that a basic principle of toxicology is “The dose determines the poison.” Anything is toxic or carcinogenic if the dose is large enough. Enough distilled water will kill you if you drink several gallons at one time. (It upsets the electrolyte balance in the brain). Conversely, if the dose is small enough, otherwise dangerous chemicals are harmless—and often beneficial. So the crude and essentially dishonest attempt to scare people about the very small doses of chemicals in secondhand smoke—which science has shown to be harmless—is so ludicrous that I erupted in laughter.

But the general public does not know the facts on this issue, and ads that play on people's ignorance are evidently successful no matter how unethical and misleading they are. So I decided to write this blog to inform people about some facts regarding secondhand smoke and ads like the one I encountered, which many anti-smoking groups are using in attempting to sway public opinion.

At the bottom of the page, the ad said secondhand smoke contains hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, and formaldehyde. Boy that sounds scary! At least to those with no knowledge of chemistry and biological processes. But as I pointed out in my book MAKERS AND TAKERS, hydrogen cyanide is present in lima beans, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, pears and peas. Even cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower contain cyanide compounds.

Arsenic is found in many fruits, vegetables, cereals, meats and dairy products. Seafood can contain even more. Shrimp, oyster, mussels, prawns and other marine foods have been found to contain up to 174 ppm of arsenic—far more than the doses anyone will ever get from secondhand smoke. Yet the smoking ban activists chant unrelentingly, “there is no safe level of secondhand smoke”, “any dose is dangerous.” How can any dose of chemicals be dangerous in secondhand smoke when our bodies take in much larger amounts of these same chemicals from other sources? Furthermore, arsenic—despite its scary reputation—has been found to be essential to human life. At least ten other elements that are essential to human life are carcinogens at high doses—including and iron and even oxygen. Do the smoking ban activist know what they are talking about when they claim any dose of a carcinogen is dangerous, that there is no safe level for the chemicals in secondhand smoke?

Arsenic is naturally occurring in air, soil and water. The largest concentrations are found in soil, on which cattle graze on on which we grow fruits and vegetables.

The threshold OSHA has set for airborne arsenic is 10ug for an 8-hour work shift. This is the PEL (permissible exposure limit), below which the chemical is considered safe. And OSHA is being very conservative. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, no symptoms are evident below “about 100 ug.” The World Health Organization estimates that pack-a-day smokers of American cigarettes inhale 2.6 ug arsenic per 8-hour work shift. The National Research Council says nonsmokers inhale 0.1 to 1% of what smokers inhale. Now, if a bartender has 25 seats in his bar and 10 are occupied by smokers, each smoking two cigarettes per hour, 160 cigarettes would be smoked per 8 hour shift. L. Stewart, author of Epidemiology 101, or How to Read and Understand a Study, shows that even if the 160 cigarettes could somehow all be smoked in a 40-inch cube without ventilation, the airborne arsenic inhaled in that cube would be only 0.064 ug—which is far, far, far below the OSHA standard. If instead of being confined to a 40-inch cube, the smoke was dispersed throughout a room large enough to hold 25 people, the concentration would be far, far, far less. He then notes:
“the same kinds of calculations can be made for every "poison" and "toxin" in all the ads.  Which is why OSHA has stated that it's well-nigh impossible to find any actual workplace where its PELs for secondhand smoke or any constituent thereof would be met, let alone exceeded.
“The point we're trying to make is that while Arsenic!! is a 'poison' and even a 'carcinogen' it's neither at these doses.  And further, people's normal exposure from other sources is greater by great amounts.”
Finally, there is formaldehyde, the last of the chemicals ClearWay Minnesota is trying to scare people with in its ad. Formaldehyde sounds scary. But how can it be dangerous in any amount in secondhand smoke (“no safe level”) when we are exposed to small amounts from auto exhaust and other sources of combustion as well as from sunlight and oxygen acting on methane and other naturally occurring hydrocarbons in the atmosphere? Furthermore, our own bodies produce formaldehyde through internal biological processes having nothing to do with industry, pollution or tobacco. How can a chemical be dangerous in any amount in secondhand smoke when the same chemical is produced by our own bodies?

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