silhouette of a person smoking in the light of a living room lamp

Home, Smoke-filled Home

Secondhand smoke exposure is a cause of premature death and disease among women and children.

By Stephanie Shapiro

In countries around the world where cigarette smoking is on the rise, women and children are being exposed to high levels of secondhand smoke in the home, according to a study by researchers at the Institute for Global Tobacco Control (IGTC), which quantifies the extent of that exposure.

The data from 31 countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Latvia, Laos and Romania, found that the median air nicotine concentration was 17 times higher in households with smokers than in nonsmoking households. The study, conducted in 1,284 homes by collecting hair samples from women and children and installing passive air monitors to measure air nicotine, also found that the more smokers at home, the higher the exposure.

"The knowledge base about the hazards of secondhand smoke is very, very low where data were collected," says Heather Wipfli, PhD, co-author of the study that appeared in last April's American Journal of Public Health. Parents are "unaware of the risk that they're putting their families in," she says.

Research shows that secondhand smoke exposure is a cause of premature death and disease, including lung cancer and respiratory ailments, among women and children. Such exposure is also linked to increased ear infections and sudden infant death syndrome in children. A 2006 Surgeon General's report concluded that there are no safe levels of exposure to passive cigarette smoke.

"Without these kinds of data, it's very difficult to assess the exact level of risk," says Wipfli, a former assistant scientist at the IGTC. "We hope that this will encourage government and public health agencies to increase their investment and activities in public education as well as in clean indoor air laws where they have jurisdiction."

The study did offer some good news: Indoor exposure to secondhand smoke is "extremely easy to control," Wipfli notes. In households where parents went outside to smoke, nicotine concentrations found in hair samples taken from children were much lower.

The results convey "not just a 'quit smoking' message but also a 'go outside' message," she says.