The Danger Facing One in Three Children in the US

Findings from a new study show that children who live with a smoker are being exposed to dangerously high levels of tobacco-related carcinogens.

Findings presented at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research Conference indicate that 90% of children who lived in a house where an adult smoked had evidence of tobacco-related carcinogens in their urine.

The average amount of tobacco metabolites in children aged one month to 10 years old was 8% of what is found in a smoker, according to lead researcher Janet L. Thomas, PhD, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Minnesota, who presented the data last week in Philadelphia, PA.

“This finding is striking, because while all of the researchers involved in this study expected some level of exposure to carcinogens, the average levels were higher than what we anticipated,” she said in a statement. These results are particularly concerning, as nearly one-third of young children in the US live in a house with at least one smoker, noted Thomas.

“No one knows the long-term impact of cumulative exposure to these chemicals. It could prime the body in some way that leads to DNA changes in cells that might contribute to lung damage, and potentially lung cancer,” Thomas said.

The researchers also found a direct correlation between the number of cigarettes one or more adults smoked in the house each day and tobacco metabolites in the children who lived there. There was also a link between childhood exposure to secondhand smoke and lower socioeconomic status, employment, and parental education.

African-American children had the highest levels of tobacco-related metabolites in their urine, even if their parent or parents smoked comparatively less.

“This suggests, as other researchers have found, that African-Americans metabolize tobacco-related chemicals differently,” said Thomas.

The study was conducted to quantify tobacco-related carcinogens in children, with the hope that the children’s parents might be open to banning smoking inside the home, according to the AACR.

The researchers took urine samples from 79 children who lived in a home where at least one parent smoked. They quantified total NNAL (a biomarker of NNK, which is a nitrosamine produced during tobacco curing), as well as nicotine and cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine that stays longer in the body. Results showed that 90% of the children had detectable levels of NNAL and nicotine in their urine, and 95% had evidence of cotinine.

In addition, the researchers measured carbon monoxide levels in parents and asked about the number of cigarettes smoked per day and smoking restrictions in the home. NNAL levels were significantly lower in homes that had complete smoking restrictions, and there was a correlation between cigarettes smoked per day and NNAL in their children.

“Based on these results, there is little doubt that total NNAL in the urine of children could be substantially reduced by home smoking restrictions,” said Thomas. It is vital, she added, that “all parents have the facts they need to make informed decisions to protect their families from this completely preventable health hazard.”

For more:

  • Home Exposure to Tobacco Carcinogens High in Children of Smokers
  • Exposure to Tobacco Smoke in Adolescence Leads to Arterial Changes associated with Atherosclerosis
  • CDC: Children and Secondhand Smoke Exposure

Do you address the topic of smoking with the parents of young children? Will this study impact the approach you take in speaking about the dangers smoking poses to children?