Junk Science, #3: Unfounded Scares About Secondhand Smoke


From Edmond Contoski at Amlipub

Every day I swallow a pill with rat poison. Millions of other people have been doing the same thing. It is a common drug prescribed as a blood thinner for people with a heart condition. Tuesday I made a routine visit to a cardiology clinic; periodic tests are needed to determine if the level of the drug in my blood is appropriate or needs to be adjusted up or down. While waiting my turn for the test, I picked up a magazine titled Minnesota Health Care, March 2007. Inside the back cover was a full-page ad by ClearWay Minnesota. The entire page was covered with a picture of bugs and the alarmist message—in very large print—that secondhand tobacco smoke contains the same chemicals as insecticides to kill bugs. Then it asks the blatantly scary message “Are you OK with this?” Of course I am OK with this! I burst out laughing, which brought incredulous stares from those around me since medical waiting rooms are usually not sources of hilarity. But not only is it “OK with me” since I am already not frightened by taking a rat poison, I happen to know that a basic principle of toxicology is “The dose determines the poison.”

Anything is toxic or carcinogenic if the dose is large enough. Enough distilled water will kill you if you drink several gallons at one time. (It upsets the electrolyte balance in the brain). Conversely, if the dose is small enough, otherwise dangerous chemicals are harmless—and often beneficial. So the crude and essentially dishonest attempt to scare people about the very small doses of chemicals in secondhand smoke—which science has shown to be harmless—is so ludicrous that I erupted in laughter.

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