Coming Out of the Toxic Clouds

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May 31, 2014 is World No Tobacco Day. Read about how NCEH’s Tobacco Laboratory measures toxic and addictive substances in tobacco smoke.


Work in NCEH’s Tobacco Laboratory helps reduce exposure to secondhand smoke

If you saw a cloud of smoke that you knew contained more than 4,000 chemical components, of which at least 250 caused cancer, then you’d run for cover and seek cleaner air. This is the case each time you’re near someone who smokes a cigarette, cigar, or pipe.

Exposure to secondhand smoke causes 3,400 deaths a year due to lung cancer. The toxic cloud also has immediate effects on your cardiovascular system and can cause heart attack and stroke.

At NCEH, we have a tobacco laboratory where research focuses on five areas:

  • tobacco product design and content
  • tobacco smoke and other emissions
  • tobacco product use
  • tobacco markers in the body
  • future tobacco research

Lanqing Wang, a research chemist in NCEH’s Tobacco Laboratory, says researchers in the laboratory measure the toxic and addictive substances in tobacco products, smoke, smokers, and nonsmokers. Wang explains that workers in the laboratory examine the inside and outside of a cigarette. In the laboratory, cigarettes are inserted in smoking machines. Workers use the machines to collect data on the particulate matter and gases the cigarette releases.

Secondhand smoke comes from two sources. It includes the smoke that is released when the tobacco product is burned and the smoke that a smoker exhales.

When a nonsmoker comes in contact with secondhand smoke, the negative health effects are about the same as for the smoker. The nonsmoker’s body breaks down the chemicals in the smoke. One of the byproducts produced during the process is cotinine.

Back in the early 1990s, NCEH’s Tobacco Laboratory developed a method for measuring levels of cotinine in a person’s bloodstream. The measurement was used as an indicator of the risks for a smoker and a nonsmoker who are exposed to secondhand smoke. “Our laboratory is probably the only one of its kind that can measure toxic substances from different sources, such as the blood, urine, and saliva,” Wang says.

NCEH Tobacco Laboratory data showed 88% of nonsmokers in the United States were exposed to secondhand smoke and, therefore, its negative health effects. State and local governments used these data to argue for outlawing smoking in public buildings. In some cities, legislation has been expanded to ban smoking in parks, restaurants, and other public places.

  • During 1988 to 1991, data showed that 87.9% of nonsmokers had measurable levels of cotinine in their bodies.
  • From 1999 to 2000, the figure dropped to 52.5%.
  • From 2007 to 2008, an estimated 40.1% of nonsmokers had cotinine in their bodies.
  • From 2009 to 2010, CDC data showed this figure dropped to 30.1%.

Wang credits the decrease in secondhand smoke exposure to legislation that bans smoking in public places and the workplace and to the decrease in adult and children smoking rates. “Our work provides scientific evidence that policies are working,” Wang says.

Although the number of persons exposed to secondhand smoke has decreased over more than 20 years, secondhand smoke remains a major public health treat.

“The reason it’s a big problem is because it has such a big impact on public health,” Wang says.

For more information about secondhand smoke, visit CDC – Secondhand Smoke – Smoking & Tobacco Use and find out more about NCEH’s Tobacco Laboratory at their website.


How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease

Secondhand Smoke Facts

Tobacco Laboratory

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Page last reviewed: May 30, 2014
Page last updated: May 30, 2014