New Study: Homes of Smokers Harbor Nicotine That Can Harm Kids’ Health

April 20, 2017

Most parents keep their homes and cars smoke-free, but those efforts might not be enough to protect kids from exposure to nicotine, say the authors of a new study of third-hand smoke dangers. Here’s why: Even if parents don’t smoke in the home, it appears that nicotine residue settles on surfaces that their children touch.

Researchers tested the hands of kids visiting emergency rooms for illnesses related to second-hand smoke exposure, such as difficulty breathing, with special wipes and found significant levels of nicotine on them, they wrote in their paper published in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control. The 25 children in the study were 5 years old on average and they lived with at least one smoker.

The researchers also found that kids that had significant levels of nicotine on their hands also tended to have cotinine, a harmful nicotine metabolite, in their saliva. Cotinine exposure has been linked to respiratory problems and more frequent and severe asthma attacks in infants and children.

Previous studies of adults have looked at nicotine’s ability to cling to household surfaces and smokers’ clothes, and researchers have studied kids’ exposure to other airborne pollutants in the home. But this is the first study attempting to connect third-hand smoke exposure and nicotine in children’s skin and saliva. Younger children’s tendency to put their hands and fingers in their mouths is the likely vehicle for the nicotine, says Dr. James Mowry, PharmD, manager of the poison control center at Indiana University Health.

“A little nicotine can be absorbed across skin, but I’m sure the vast majority in this study was transmitted orally,” Dr. Mowry says.

Their findings indicate that second- and third-hand smoke exposure can happen via multiple pathways, and they also support the idea that younger children interact with their environments in ways that increase their exposure to pollutants, they wrote. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the child in the study with the highest level of nicotine detected was just 2 years old, when kids are old enough to explore but still want to stick everything in their mouths.

It’s important to remember, however, that this is a preliminary study, Dr. Mowry says. “All they can say is that they had children come in with respiratory distress and or some type of irritation in the upper respiratory tract and that these children had levels of cotinine in their saliva and nicotine on their hands,” he says.

But this research does support the suspicion among toxicologists and health experts that children’s exposure to nicotine isn’t limited to second-hand smoke, Dr. Mowry says. The authors of the study say they want to follow up this study with a larger one of 700 children. They also want to explore whether the nicotine-detecting wipes used in the study can be employed in clinical settings to help diagnose smoking-related health problems and wrote that more research is needed to figure out how to decrease children’s exposure to nicotine.

Considering that 23 percent of adults in Indiana smoke (the 44th worst rate in the nation) it’s a particular concern here. But for now, there are no easy answers for parents who aren’t ready to quit smoking.

-- By Virginia Pelley

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