The Chemistry of Secondhand Smoke
This article was written by Michael J. McFadden in his book "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains". His website is www.antibrains.com
The Chemistry of Secondary Smoke
As noted earlier in the
chapter on Language, about 90% of secondary smoke is composed of water
and ordinary air with a slight excess of carbon dioxide. Another 4% is
carbon monoxide, a gas that can act as a poison when in sufficient
quantity by reducing the amount of oxygen your red blood cells can
carry. The last 6% contains the rest of the 4,000 or so chemicals
supposedly to be found in smoke… but found, obviously, in very small
quantities (1989 Report of the Surgeon General p. 80).
these chemicals can only be found in quantities measured in nanograms,
picograms and femtograms. Many cannot even be detected in these
amounts: their presence is simply theorized rather than measured. To
bring those quantities into a real world perspective, take a saltshaker
and shake out a few grains of salt. A single grain of that salt will
weigh in the ballpark of 100 million picograms! (Allen Blackman.
Chemistry Magazine 10/08/01).
To refer back to our earlier
example of arsenic, a nonsmoker would have to work with a smoker 8
hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for well over a hundred
years to be exposed to a quantity of arsenic equal to one grain of
salt. While a lot of waitresses and bartenders may feel as if they’ve
worked a hundred years at their jobs, there really aren’t too many who
And, again as noted earlier, far from all 4,000
of those chemicals are normally labeled as toxic in the first place,
with the 1989 Surgeon Generals’ Report only noting that “some” are…
without reference to how many or to what amounts would be considered
toxic. One of the most basic principles of scientific toxicology is
that “The Dose Makes The Poison.”… a fact always ignored by Crusaders.
speaking of secondary smoke many Antismokers will also refer to the “40
carcinogenic compounds” it supposedly contains. In reality only six of
those have in fact been classified as “known human carcinogens” (1989
Report of the Surgeon General. pgs. 86-87). Most of the rest of the 40
compounds have shown insufficient evidence of being human carcinogens
and many are commonly found in foods, coffee, and the general
environment (Science, 258: 261-265 (1992). The exposure of nonsmokers
to the six actual human carcinogens is usually so minuscule as to be
almost imaginary in nature and is sometimes far less than other
everyday environmental exposures.
Secondary smoke is the mix
of all of the smoke that enters the air in a room where someone is
smoking, both the smoke exhaled by the smoker and the smoke coming off
the tip of the cigarette. You’ve heard the claim that secondary smoke
is twice as bad as what the smoker gets? In a way this is true: if you
held your nose a quarter inch above the burning end of a cigarette and
inhaled a slow deep breath through your nostrils you’d be getting a
concentration of smoke and its chemicals twice as great as what the
smoker is pulling into his or her mouth.
In the real world no
one does that. Even the most hardened of smokers would generally be
reduced to paroxysms of coughing from such concentrated inhalation. The
secondary smoke that a nonsmoker comes in contact with is usually an
extremely diluted mixture of exhaled smoke and the smoke produced
directly from the cigarette’s tip.
Something that’s usually
forgotten in the rush of concern about the nonsmoker is that the smoker
is also breathing all the secondary smoke produced, and, given the
closer proximity to the source, the smoker is inhaling it in far
greater quantities and concentrations than most nonsmokers ever would!
If the concerns about the dangers of secondary smoke were really true
it would make perfect sense for a smoker with a smoking guest to insist
that the guest go outside to smoke even if they were both smoking at
the same time. Indeed, smokers would want to rush outside themselves
out of fear of their own secondary smoke!
The exact chemical
composition of secondary smoke depends largely upon how many seconds
it’s been in the air. Just as happens in the case of most combustion
products, the chemicals change and break down very quickly, and some
elements will tend to settle toward the floor or deposit themselves on
walls or curtains. In pursuit of some arguments Antismokers want to
assume from the start that secondary smoke is carcinogenic: this is
when they will claim that it’s chemically very similar to mainstream
smoke. However, when they want to argue that comparing secondary smoke
exposure to “cigarette equivalents” is unfair (This method generally
produces very low measures of exposure… sometimes as low as six
cigarettes per year even for bartenders), they will claim that it’s
chemically very different than mainstream smoke and can’t be compared
in that way!
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