Everyone in my mother's house in Montreal, Canada, smoked as she grew up in the 1950s. Her father inhaled three packs of unfiltered cigarettes per day, and her mother and her nanny lit up daily. At the time, my mother didn't realize that she too was a smoker—a passive one.
"I smoked like a chimney," says Phyllis Rideout, my mother's nanny, who still lives with my grandmother.
On weekends, my grandmother would invite eight ladies for card games. They would sit around a table in the kitchen or living room for two days and chain smoke, says Peggy Pardo, my mother. "They'd light the next cigarette with one still going." As a child, my mother enjoyed all the excitement. She was ignorant of the dangers the party brought to her health.
Although smoking tobacco dates back 3,000 years to Central America, the link between smoking and lung cancer only emerged during my mother's youth. With each cigarette, smokers exhale more than 4,700 chemicals, 200 poisons, and 50 human carcinogens, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The exhaled smoke from their lungs, or from the burning end of the cigarettes, is called secondhand smoke and it greatly harms those nearby—especially children. This dangerous smoke causes greater risk of respiratory tract infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, ear infections, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Smoking in the home eventually did affect my mother's lungs, prompting her first asthma attack at age 13. Her friend's cat sparked an ongoing shortness of breath all night during a sleepover. When my grandmother took her to the doctor, he informed her that my mom had allergies and recommended getting rid of the carpets in her room, her curtains, and watching out for dust. He never mentioned keeping her away from smokers.
"That was the culture then," said Hilda Jacobson, my grandmother. "Look at the movies—you never saw anyone without a cigarette in their hand." In addition, restaurants and airplanes permitted smoking in those days.
My mother was not alone in her exposure to secondhand smoke in her home. The World Health Organization estimates that 700 million, or half the world's children, are frequently exposed to smoke at home. In the United States, 43 percent of children are passive smokers in their own homes, according to the American Lung Association.
In the past 30 years, doctors have become more aware of the negative effects of secondhand smoke on children. They now know it aggravates asthma symptoms of up to one million children and causes thousands to develop it each year. Asthma has become the main chronic childhood disease in the United States.