Non-Smoking Workers Absorb Potent Carcinogen When Exposed To Secondhand Smoke

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke in the workplace is an unacceptable health hazard and shows why ALL workplaces must be smoke-free and ALL workers must be protected.

The new study, which was released last week, finds that nonsmoking restaurant and bar employees absorb a potent, tobacco-specific carcinogen when exposed to secondhand smoke in the workplace. It also finds that levels of this powerful carcinogen continue to increase the longer the employee works in a place where smoking is permitted.

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This study underscores the need for Wisconsin legislators to pass a law that requires all workplaces to be smoke-free and protects all workers and the public from the serious health hazards of secondhand smoke. The study also shows why it is important that legislators protect all workers and reject loopholes and exemptions that would condemn some workers to continued exposure to the cancer-causing chemicals in secondhand smoke. All Wisconsin workers have a right to breathe clean air and deserve safe workplaces free from the proven health risks of secondhand smoke. We urge the Legislature to enact a strong law that requires all workplaces and public places, including restaurants and bars, to be smoke-free.

The new American Journal of Public Health study, conducted in Oregon by the Multnomah County Health Department and Oregon Department of Human Services, surveyed 52 nonsmoking employees from restaurants and bars in communities where smoking was still permitted in such establishments and 32 nonsmoking bar and restaurant employees where smoking is prohibited by local ordinance.

It found that employees who worked in establishments where smoking was permitted were significantly more likely to have detectable levels of the carcinogen NNK, which is known to cause lung cancer and is found in the body only as a result of using tobacco or breathing secondhand smoke. Elevated levels of NNK showed up in the urine of nonsmoking employees shortly after they encountered secondhand smoke during their shifts and levels of NNK increased by six percent for each hour of work. According to the researchers, this is the first study to show increases in NNK as a result of brief workplace exposure. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Substance Abuse Policy Research Program.

The unacceptability of exposure to secondhand smoke is underscored by the growing number of countries, states and cities that have enacted strong smoke- free laws. In the U.S., 22 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, have passed smoke-free laws that cover restaurants and bars. The states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois (pending governor's expected signature), Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Washington. Countries that have adopted nationwide smoke-free laws include Bermuda, Bhutan, England, France (effective 2008), Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Uruguay and Wales.

Secondhand smoke contains more than 4000 chemicals, including at least 69 known to cause cancer. The U.S. Surgeon General and other health authorities have concluded that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer, heart disease and serious respiratory illnesses among adults and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), low birth weight, respiratory infections, ear infections and asthma attacks in infants and children.

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