Whenever I went swimming in grade school, I would dunk my head into the water and count how long I could hold my breath. On average, I succeeded for about 15 seconds. It was a seemingly useless skill to develop and I never thought that I would need it — until now.
In my first week at Penn, I have walked around more secondhand smoke clouds and yellow-rimmed trash cans than I can count. I have held my breath and stressed my lungs. I know that some of my fellow classmates have too.
I am not writing this column to encourage smokers to quit. I am not here to advocate e-cigarettes or to be a walking surgeon general’s warning about cancer and I am not here as an environmentalist who knows that the 1.65 billion cigarette butts coloring sidewalks, ashtrays and landfills are not biodegradable. We’re all adults here, and at this point, the dangers have either been heeded or ignored.
However, I am here to plead for cleaner air.
According to Penn’s policy, “smoking is prohibited in all university facilities … and within 20 feet of all university buildings.” This lovely restriction includes classrooms and libraries.
But I don’t spend the majority of my day in a classroom. I often trek from DRL to 1920 Commons. On the way, I pass by Locust Walk where I am 20 feet away from university buildings. Usually, I hold my breath and try not to pass out. I scan the horizon — bug-eyed and eager — for the next gulp of somewhat untainted air.
To navigate campus, I knew I would have to be creative: find the quickest routes around buildings. But I never thought that I would have to develop conscious control of my breathing if I wanted to avoid inhaling smoke.
The dangers of primary and secondhand smoke are already well known. We know that secondhand smoke kills. There are over 50,000 non-smoker casualties in the United States every year. I use the term casualties with purpose — the people that die from secondhand smoke are accidental victims or others’ choices.
Aside from the negatives of primary and secondhand smoke, there’s also the lesser-known danger of thirdhand smoke. Thirdhand smoke, as Mayo Clinic defines it, is the “residual nicotine and other chemicals left on a variety of indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke.” In short, it’s that tobacco smell that seems to follow cigarette smokers and it’s just as polluting.
What happens when people — after having smoked a cigarette within the requisite 20 feet outside a university building — come into the dining hall or bolt through Williams Hall to get to class? Through no fault of their own, they bring the thirdhand smoke inside. It lingers on their clothes, their backpacks and fills the surrounding air with toxins wherever they go.
Penn’s smoking policy does not protect against this.
I have been trying to think of a feasible solution to this problem — one that would grant smokers their cigarettes and non-smokers their uncontaminated air. After all, old habits die hard, and I am not on a crusade to put Marlboro out of business.
Most airports have designated smoking areas, something that Penn should imitate. These are usually glass rooms lined with ashtrays where travelers stand, light up, snuff out and leave.
If these designated spaces were available to smokers on campus, they would not populate the benches along of Locust Walk or the steps at Wynn Commons.
Some argue that my solution infringes on the rights of smokers. But the truth is I am not banning smoking, just restricting it for the common good.
If all the formaldehyde, ammonia, carbon monoxide, arsenic and 7,000 other carcinogenic chemicals in secondhand cigarette smoke soup were a necessary part of our air, evolution would have favored a very different atmosphere than the one we have right now.
If we corral the polluted air in one place, if we quarantine the smoke, there’s a big chance that it’ll be easier to breathe everywhere else.
Until then, I am learning to hold my breath for longer than 15 seconds.
Divya Ramesh is a College freshman from Princeton Junction, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Through My Eyes” appears every other Wednesday. Follow her @DivyaRamesh11
Editor’s note: The headline to this article has been changed to correct a misspelling. It originally appeared as “Why I waited with baited breath.”