For the past year and a half, the world has seemed to be in a pause. People have kept indoors, worn mask, and a significant eye has been turned towards public health, specifically lung health. With more and more individuals getting vaccinations to help protect themselves and others against this nasty virus, we are beginning to see our world reemerge like a tulip on a spring day that has been asleep for what seems like a very long winter. But with the reemergence of these activities, many are still opting for moving activities outdoors.
Why, you may ask, does a preventionist care that people are moving activities outdoors, isn't that a good thing. Absolutely, it is a great thing. As someone who loves all things outdoors (hiking, kayaking, swimming), I am pro moving activities outdoors. However, we need to take caution and continue to protect our lung health even outdoors when it comes to secondhand smoke.
Secondhand smoke is the combination of smoke from the burning end of a cigarette and the smoke breathed out by smokers. Secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, of which hundreds are toxic and about 70 can cause cancer (CDC, 2021). Traditionally, we associate this dangerous mix of chemicals to indoor areas such as houses, cars, and until a few years ago, restaurants. But outdoors? With limited areas that could trap the smelly smoke or vape aerosol, shouldn't we be safe?
Nope! Stanford University researchers have conducted the first in-depth study on how smoking affects air quality at sidewalk cafés, park benches and other outdoor locations. The Stanford team concluded that a non-smoker sitting a few feet downwind from a smoldering cigarette is likely to be exposed to substantial levels of contaminated air for brief periods of time. Findings have shown that a person sitting or standing next to a smoker outdoors can breathe in wisps of smoke that are many times more concentrated than normal background air pollution levels. Researchers then pointed to the 2006 Surgeon General's report, which found that even brief exposures to secondhand smoke may have adverse effects on the heart and respiratory systems and increase the severity of asthma attacks, especially in children.
What does this mean for us practically? As a parent of a "little tot", I want to do everything in my power to protect him and his health. We will still visit parks, outdoor gatherings, and take the offer to eat outdoors at a restaurant if the weather is nice, but we will ask to be seated at least 6 feet away from those who chose to smoke or vape in outdoor seating at restaurants, stay away from crowded areas where 6 feet of distance cannot be maintained from those who choose to use tobacco products, and continue to advocate and educate for smoke free and vape free areas.