Why smokers are at risk even if air pollution levels are low
Air filters are a commonly recommended solution for protecting homes, work environments, retail stores and buildings in areas suffering from high air pollution levels. They are especially important for people who face a greater health risk when exposed to air pollution including pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory issues.
A recent study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, suggests that air pollution levels classified as “good” by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can still be dangerous to the lungs of cigarette smokers, who are already exposed to copious volumes of cigarette smoke.
“The burning of tobacco generates more than 4,500 compounds, including about 50 possible carcinogens,” explains Matthew Crouch, Director of Clean Process at Camfil USA. “These include toxic nitrogen dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrocarbons, not to mention nicotine.”
The study, conducted by researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, shows that smokers with and without chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a respiratory condition defined by chronic difficulty in breathing, face a higher risk of lung damage even when air pollution levels are considered safe. Unfortunately, this is because the cells lining the alveoli in the lungs of smokers are more sensitive to air pollution, causing lung disease. In contrast, the lung cells of nonsmokers are more resistant to low levels of airborne pollutants.
According to Dr. Ronald Crystal, the study’s senior author and chairman of the Department of Genetic Medicine and the Bruce Webster Professor of Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, the key takeaway of their research is that smoking is bad for your health, no matter how you look at it.
Importance of Great Indoor Air Quality to Smokers
Because the cells in the lungs of smokers are less capable of protecting the lungs from air pollution, it’s important for these people to maintain great indoor air quality inside their homes or buildings.
According to Dr. Crystal, lung diseases caused by environmental factors, whether it’s tobacco smoking or air pollution exposure, typically begin at the smallest airways of the lungs. It helps to imagine the lungs as an upside-down tree, with the trachea as the trunk and the outermost branches as the small airways.
Dr. Crystal’s team believe that cigarette smoke may be changing the chemistry of the cells, known as epithelial cells that line these airways. When healthy, epithelial cells defend the lungs against foreign matter by secreting mucus, which expels particles out of the airways as phlegm or sputum.
Although the smallest of these airways are no more than two millimeters thick, they are still susceptible to airborne pollutants like particulate matter (PM).
“PM2.5, or particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, is especially dangerous because they are small enough to penetrate the deepest recesses of the lungs,” said Crouch.
And it just so happens that PM2.5 is one of the many byproducts of burning tobacco.
HEPA and Molecular Filtration Systems Used to Mitigate Health Dangers of Cigarette Smoking
For these reasons and more, tobacco smoking has been banned in public areas around the world. In indoor areas where smoking is allowed, such as airport lounges, hotel rooms, and select commercial establishments, HEPA and molecular filtration systems are often used to remove particulate matter and gaseous contaminants produced by burning tobacco to ensure the safety and comfort of non-smokers in the same room or building.
To help remove the particular matter out of secondhand smoke, HEPA filters and other high efficiency air filters may be installed into existing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) units. Not all existing units are capable of handling the design requirements of these filter types. If not, stand-alone room air purifiers with HEPA filters installed can be utilized. Whichever style of equipment is used, the HVAC system draws in air, the air filter traps and removes the particle contaminants from the airstream and returns the filtered air back into the room.
Of course, this is an oversimplification of what is often a complex, multi-stage process, but it more or less describes the principles of mechanical air filtration, which is the most effective air filtration method.
Particulate matter produced by burning tobacco can range in diameters, which fall within the capture capabilities of HEPA or ULPA filters. As for the gaseous pollutants that make up cigarette smoke, the second filter type offers a solution.
To capture gaseous pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and smaller solid particles, molecular air filters can be employed. Molecular filters are produced from a superabsorbent carbonaceous material with a surface covered by a microscopic network of pores and fissures no larger than 1 micron. A molecular filter can be created by heating carbon to extremely high temperatures. This process shrinks the material and creates the pores and fissures on its surface. There are so many of these, if you were to spread out a pellet of activated carbon as you would when flattening a crumpled piece of paper, you could have a sheet with the surface area of a soccer field!
The process of “activating” carbon allows it to trap solid and gas molecules, which enter the filter media’s largest pores on the surface and scatter until they are trapped in its smallest nooks and crannies inside. Molecular air filtration systems that use activated carbon are especially effective at absorbing the VOCs found in cigarette smoke.
It’s not surprising why commercial air purifiers that use activated carbon and HEPA filters are a popular solution in:
- Museums – Removing nitrogen and sulfur oxides
- Pesticide factories – Removing toxic chemical fumes
- Food and beverage manufacturing facilities – Removing cooking odors
- Airports – Removing diesel and jet fuel fumes
A Final Note on Air Filters as Protection Against Cigarette Smoke
If you think that using air filters will eliminate the health risks of smoking, think again. Ultimately, the best way to eliminate the dangers of smoking to you and your loved ones is to quit altogether. But in instances where this is impractical, HEPA or molecular air filters whether installed in existing HVAC systems or in stand-alone air purifier, can protect other people in your household from secondhand smoke. In addition, it’s important to remember that not all air filters are built the same. As with any other type of product, some filters are better than others. When in doubt, talk to a trusted air filter manufacturer to discuss your options after providing the details of your air quality challenges.
Get in touch with Camfil USA to learn more about the different ways to protect your indoor air quality from airborne pollutants. You may also explore our catalog of air filters to learn more about our product line.