It is a well known and widely accepted fact that secondhand smoke causes negative health effects. The 2006 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Secondhand Smoke, concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Children, unfortunately, have wider exposure than adults due to their lack of control over their indoor environments. The Surgeon General estimates that almost 60 percent of children 3-11 years of age are exposed to secondhand smoke on a regular basis.
Secondhand smoke is a combination of smoke from a burning cigarette and smoke exhaled by the smoker. It contains more than 4,000 identified chemicals, at least 43 of which cause cancer. Breathing secondhand smoke presents dangers to everyone who inhales it, but the lungs of young children are more adversely affected, since children have higher breathing rates than adults and are still developing physically.
A child’s health can be negatively impacted by secondhand smoke (SHS) in many ways. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in very early life (prior to one year of age) occurs more frequently in smoking households. As a child grows, his/her secondhand smoke-exposed lungs are at increased risk for respiratory problems, including lower respiratory tract infections, pneumonia and bronchitis. Asthma attacks are probably the most well-known health effect of SHS exposure among children, and exposure to only 10 cigarettes per day can result in the onset of asthma in children. In addition to causing asthma, inhaling secondhand smoke can increase the frequency and severity of episodes in asthmatic children.
Ear infections are another common problem with children of smokers. Secondhand smoke inhaled by a child can cause swelling and obstruction in the Eustachian Tube, which leads from the nose to the middle ear. This leads to pain, infection, and even hearing loss due to recurring ear infections.
In addition to physical problems, children experience other complications from SHS exposure. A child’s ability to learn can be impaired, mainly affecting reading and math skills. Studies also show that smoke-exposed children are more likely to suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other types of conduct disorder. Boys especially have greater problems with hyperactivity, aggression, depression, and other behavioral issues.
Adults exposed to secondhand smoke as children can experience myriad problems, including metabolic syndrome – a disorder associated with excessive midriff fat that increases chances of heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes – and decreased elasticity of the abdominal aorta, an early marker of atherosclerosis. Researchers in Finland determined in a longitudinal study that the aorta and carotid arteries of SHS-exposed children were 7 percent thicker than normal by the time they reached their teens.
Another recent concern has been dubbed “thirdhand smoke,” in which SHS contaminates are retained on clothing, draperies, carpets, walls, furniture, and even skin. Infants, toddlers, and young children are especially at risk through their continual contact with these surfaces; their exposure rate is estimated to be more than twice that of adults.
Of all the negative health impacts of secondhand smoke, there is one with the greatest potential for long-lasting effects. The level of secondhand smoke a child is exposed to is directly proportional to the likelihood that child will become a smoker as an adolescent or an adult; thus the next generation of smokers is created to subject their children to their own secondhand smoke.
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Aleta Carpenter is retired Sacramento lobbyist who returned to her Shasta County roots, seeking a calmer lifestyle. She is a member of the Shasta County Tobacco Coalition and works as a Community Education Specialist II for Shasta County Public Health. She loves being in a position to give back to the community that gave so much to her in her early years.