Young Children and Secondary Tobacco Smoke

By Marcia Anderson

One-half to two-thirds of all American children under five years of age are exposed to cigarette smoke in the home. A recent national survey indicated that 43 percent of children two months to 11 years of age live in homes with at least one smoker.  Adults have a choice, whether they wish to smoke or not, infants and young children exposed to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) do not have that choice, and it can, and does affect the quality of their lives.

Infants and young children whose parents smoke are among the most seriously affected by exposure to environmental tobacco smoke. In addition, the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that children whose parents smoke had between a 20 and 40 percent greater risk of hospitalization for severe bronchitis and pneumonia during their first year of life.  Children exposed to secondhand smoke are also more likely to have reduced lung function and symptoms of respiratory irritation such as coughing, excess phlegm and wheezing. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of avoidable death in the United States. What this means is that even though the ill effects of active and passive smoking are staggering, they can be reduced and even eliminated.

Secondary smoke, or environmental tobacco smoke is a known cause of lung cancer in humans and a Group A carcinogen. The cigarettes contain some 4,000 substances, of which more than 40 are known to cause cancer in humans or animals. Other chemicals present in tobacco smoke such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide are strong irritants that can cause a variety of serious cardiac and pulmonary diseases. What’s more, there are no safe threshold levels of exposure to the toxicants in tobacco smoke that have been found.

Toxic Ingestion of Cigarette Butts.

Another source of exposure to tobacco by babies and toddlers is the ingestion of cigarettes or cigarette butts. Most cases of nicotine poisoning in children result from ingestion of cigarettes. Each year, poison control centers in the United States receive thousands of reports of children ingesting tobacco products. Researchers at the Rhode Island Department of Health recently analyzed reported ingestions of cigarettes among children under the age of six in their state. The mean age of the child involved was 12 months, and 77 percent of the children were between the ages of six and 12 months. Ninety-eight percent of the exposures occurred in the child’s home.

About the Author: Marcia is the bed bug and vector management specialist for the Pesticides Program in Edison. She has a BS in Biology from Monmouth, second degree in Environmental Design-Landscape Architecture from Rutgers, Masters in Instruction and Curriculum from Kean, and is a PhD in Environmental Management candidate from Montclair – specializing in Integrated Pest Management and Environmental Communications. Prior to EPA, and concurrently, she has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology and Oceanography at Kean University for 14 years.