Cancer Risk for Non-Smokers: Second Hand Tobacco Smoke


You may think that you have no risk of lung cancer because you never smoked – but second-hand tobacco can cause problems if you were exposed over long periods of time. This is an all too common reality for railroad workers especially.

What are the Health Hazards of Second-Hand Tobacco Smoke (SHTS)?

Second Hand Tobacco Smoke (SHTS), also known as Environmental Tobacco Smoke, is a well-recognized cause of cancer. This is true even if the SHTS exposure occurred years ago. SHTS contains the same toxic chemicals as the tobacco smoke that is inhaled by smokers. According to the American Cancer Society, SHTS is comprised of more than 7000 different chemicals and over 70 of these chemicals are known to cause cancer. Some of these toxic and cancer-causing chemicals in SHTS include: hydrogen cyanide, toluene, chromium, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), formaldehyde, arsenic, benzene, and vinyl chloride.

SHTS is comprised of both “mainstream” smoke which is exhaled by the smoker, and “sidestream” smoke which is released from the end of burning cigarettes. Each of these types of smoke contains hazardous and cancer-causing substances and chemicals. What is surprising though is that sidestream smoke contains higher concentrations of certain hazardous toxins because of the way the cigarette burns at lower temperatures. In fact, the 1986 Surgeon General’s Report concerning SHTS expressly concluded that: “There is no evidence to suggest that environmental tobacco smoke has a qualitatively lower toxicity or carcinogenicity than mainstream smoke per milligram of smoke inhaled. In fact, the available evidence suggests that sidestream smoke contains higher concentrations of many known toxic and carcinogenic agents per milligram of smoke and is more tumorgenic than mainstream smoke in animal testing.”

Railroad Workers at Higher Risk

The United States Surgeon General has concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to SHTS. That means that any and all exposures increase the risk of developing cancer. Of course, the greater the exposure to SHTS, the greater the risk of cancer. Unfortunately railroad engineers, brakemen, conductors, and other job crafts often worked in confined spaces, such as in locomotive cabs, which significantly increased their exposure to SHTS, especially when multiple coworkers smoked around them. Under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. Sections 51-60, railroads can be responsible for any cancer sustained by their non-smoking employees which was caused, in whole or in part, by SHTS from coworkers.

How Long Have the Hazards of SHTS Been Known?

The United States Surgeon General has published many reports on the hazards of tobacco smoke going all the way back to 1964. However, it was not until the 1970’s that the Surgeon General began highlighting the dangers of SHTS. A nice summary of the Surgeon General’s historical position on SHTS is found in the 2014 Report which highlighted that in 1971 Surgeon General Jesse L. Steinfeld stated that: “Nonsmokers have as much right to clean air and wholesome air as smokers have to their so-called right to smoke, which I would redefine as a ‘right to pollute’… It is high time to ban smoking from all confined public spaces such as restaurants, theaters, airplanes, trains, and buses. It is time that we interpret the Bill of Rights for the Non-smokers as well as the Smoker” (2014 Surgeon General Report). Unfortunately this did little for the countless railroad workers who had already been exposed in particularly confined spaces for significant amounts of time.

What Did the Railroads Do in Response to This Knowledge About SHTS Hazards?

Despite this awareness of the dangers to employees from SHTS, railroads in the United States were slow to act on this information from the Surgeon General. Many railroads did not implement no smoking policies until the 1990s. This delay meant that railroad workers in all different crafts were unnecessarily exposed to SHTS. The railroads’ delay in acting to protect non-smoking employees is evidence of negligence under the FELA and allows railroad workers who have suffered lung cancer to claim benefits directly from the railroads.

Seek Help From an Attorney if You Have Been Diagnosed With Cancer Due to SHTS Exposure on a Railroad

Over the last 30 years, Doran and Murphy PLLC has represented many engineers, conductors and brakeman (as well as other job crafts) for cancer as a result of SHTS exposure from excessive tobacco smoke in confined locomotive cabs and buildings.

Non-Smoker Lung Cancer for Railroad Workers
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