The hazards of the closed car

What’s the best way this holiday season to expose your child to nicotine and the cancer-causing compounds in tobacco smoke?

A report in the British Medical Association Journal says it’s very easy. Take your children for a car ride, keep the windows closed and smoke cigarettes.

Dr. Patrick Breysse, a researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, studied the cars of 17 smokers who commuted to work for 30 minutes or longer. He reports that nicotine concentrations were 50% higher than those found in restaurants and bars that permitted smoking.

And that for each cigarette smoked in the car there was a doubling of the airborne nicotine concentration.

This finding shouldn’t be shocking. After all, the car’s airtight and compact interior is a small space compared to other locations. And now that smoking is banned in restaurants and many public places, it’s one of the last bastions of smokers.

This smoking madness started with Sir Walter Raleigh, a favourite courtier of Queen Elizabeth I, when he introduced tobacco to England. If he tried this today, health authorities would immediately ban it as a hazardous substance. Now we know that, in addition to nicotine, tobacco contains 4,000 chemicals of which 40 are known to be carcinogenic to humans.

It’s ironic that no one would swallow a pill that has this lethal mixture yet millions of people willingly smoke cigarettes that contain it all.

The facts are appalling. Every year tobacco kills at least three million people worldwide.

Today 90% of lung cancer deaths, 30% of all cancers, 80% of chronic bronchitis and emphysema and 25% of heart disease and stroke are due to tobacco. Giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Dracula is safer than lighting up a cigarette.

But what surprised me is that researchers make no mention in their report of other hazards of smoking in a car with windows shut. Time and time again we tell drivers not to drink alcohol and drive. But what about the driving hazard associated with smoking?

Smoking a cigarette produces carbon monoxide (C0), an odourless, colourless pollutant. We’ve all heard of depressed people using carbon monoxide to commit suicide by turning on the car’s ignition in a closed garage. It doesn’t take too long to depart this planet when this powerful gas robs the body of oxygen.

Normally our body contains from zero to eight parts per million (ppm) of CO. Smokers can have from 20 to 59 ppm of CO depending on the number of cigarettes smoked during a 24-hour period. But in a closed car CO can reach significantly higher levels.

Increased concentrations of carbon monoxide in the blood initially cause headache, dizziness, nausea and fatigue. So it’s not surprising that a study in Seattle, Washington, showed that smokers had a 50% greater risk of being in automobile accidents than non-smokers. I don’t know how many people are killed in car accidents due to increased amounts of CO in cars. But I’d bet it’s more than we think, and rarely considered as the cause of these deaths.

It’s not just in cars that CO causes trouble. One woman was admitted to hospital complaining of chest pain and mental confusion.

She admitted smoking two packs of cigarettes daily and was also an ardent bingo player. A few days later she had recovered but doctors were not aware of what had caused her symptoms.

Shortly thereafter her doctor visited the local bingo hall to help raise money for a charitable organization. He said he had never seen such a smoke-filled atmosphere.

Of the 310 players 304 were smoking! He then realized his patient was suffering from the “Bingo Brain Syndrome” due to excessive amounts of CO gas. Laboratory study later confirmed this diagnosis.

This holiday season we should all know that smoking causes lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and cardiovascular problems. But before you light up in a car remember it can also be setting the stage for a fatal traffic accident. This is one tragedy you can prevent.

My best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2012.

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