Researcher questions how bad is secondhand smoke

February 4, 2005
By Ellen Rogers
Morris News Service

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. - Just how harmful is environmental tobacco smoke?

Not as harmful as the Environmental Protection Agency or those anti-secondhand smoke commercials would have one believe, according to Roger A. Jenkins, Ph.D., consultant to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Chemical Sciences division.

Jenkins discussed environmental tobacco smoke (ETA) at ORNL the first week of February.

"Some people wish I didn't have the findings I have," Jenkins said. "Others say, 'Gee, if this is true, why does the EPA continue to talk about this?' [The research] steps on people's toes, and that's exactly what I want it to do."

Environmental tobacco smoke is a highly-diluted mixture of side stream (70 to 90 percent) and exhaled mainstream (10 to 30 percent) of tobacco smoke.

"'Secondhand' smoke is probably misleading, since most ETS is derived from smoke which is emitted by the smoldering fire cone of a cigarette," Jenkins said.

According to Jenkins, the typical smoker inhales 480 milligrams of smoke a day and 32 milligrams of nicotine per day. In a home where smoking is unrestricted, the typical nonsmoker will inhale the equivalent of .45 milligrams of smoke particles and .028 milligrams of nicotine.

There are several science-related hurdles to overcome in educating the public about ETS, Jenkins said. The first is getting people to understand the difference between personal beliefs and science.

"In a society where there are still serious debates about evolution, this can be a real challenge," he said.

The second is avoiding the "means justifying the end syndrome," which Jenkins says involves the distortion of science in the name of preventing youth from smoking.

The third major hurdle is demanding "public policy types" provide perspective for the facts they declare.

"Sure, there are 43 carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) in ETS, but there are also probably about 40 carcinogens in diesel exhaust and wood smoke," Jenkins said.

Indoor air pollution is also caused by many things other than non-tobacco sources, including wood burning as well as cleaning, cooking and consumer products such as Raid.

"As (physician) Paracelsus said in the early 1500s, 'the poison is in the dose,'" Jenkins said. "We still continue to eat lettuce and take showers despite their carcinogens. Life is risky business."

Jenkins is simply remaining true to his profession by bringing forth this politically incorrect information, he says.

"When you start tinkering with science because you want to achieve some political aim, you are no longer a scientist."

Jenkins retired in September from his position as leader of the Environmental Chemistry and Mass Spectrometry Group in the Chemical Sciences Division at ORNL. He has authored or co-authored more than 45 open literature publications in the area of field analytical chemistry and tobacco smoke characterization and human exposure. He is the lead author of "The Chemistry of Environmental Tobacco Smoke: Composition and Measurement," Second Edition.

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