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Smoke Gets in Kids' Hair

Even parents who light up outdoors expose children to smoke

TUESDAY, May 7, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Many parents who smoke cigarettes light up outside the house or in the garage, thinking they're protecting their children from the dangers of smoke.

Not so, finds a new study.

Researchers from Columbus Children's Hospital found that even in homes where parents report never smoking inside the house, children still had measurable levels of a nicotine byproduct called cotinine in their hair.

Results of the study were presented today at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Baltimore.

"Parents need to know that smoking outside is not the real answer," says lead author Dr. Judith Groner, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio. She says parents must realize and understand how harmful tobacco smoke is to children, and the best thing they can do for their kids is quit smoking.

This study is one of several on the hazards of secondhand smoke to children presented at the same meeting. Two others found that even low levels of exposure to secondhand smoke can cause slight declines in math and reading scores, and can affect the way a newborn's body is able to regulate its heart rhythm.

"Cigarette smoking is a huge risk factor for many childhood problems, like asthma. It's also a huge risk factor for eventual smoking by the children," says Dr. Susanna McColley, acting director of pediatric pulmonology at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "There is no level of cigarette exposure that is truly safe for children."

For Groner's study, her team recruited 327 children between the ages of 2 weeks and 3 years old from a primary-care health center in Columbus. The researchers asked the parents about their smoking habits in the home, and they took a sample of each child's hair to measure the amount of cotinine.

Cotinine is a substance produced by the liver as it breaks down nicotine. It takes a while for cotinine to appear in hair, so the researchers were able to get an accurate picture of the children's long-term exposure to nicotine.

Forty-one percent of the parents reported they were smokers, and 20 percent of the smokers said they never smoked inside the home, Groner says.

Yet, cotinine levels were only slightly lower in children whose parents said they never smoked inside the home than in youngsters whose parents admitted to smoking in the house.

Groner says she's not sure why these youngsters were still showing signs of nicotine exposure if their parents never smoked indoors.

"Maybe they told us what they thought we wanted to hear," she explains, "or maybe they smoked outside, but let other people smoke inside."

McColley says that in her practice parents often report they don't smoke inside. However, even if they do smoke outside, the smoke can drift inside when the parents walk back into the house.

"If you can smell it," she adds, "you're breathing it in."

Also, she suspects that even parents who smoke outside most of the time probably light up occasionally inside if it's freezing or raining hard outside.

What To Do

If you have children, the best thing for them and for you is to quit smoking. For advice on how to do that, check out these quitting tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For more information on the effects of secondhand smoke, check Ohio State University or the American Council on Science and Health.

SOURCES: Judith Groner, M.D., clinical professor, pediatrics, Columbus Children's Hospital, Ohio; Susanna McColley, M.D., acting director, pediatric pulmonology, Children's Memorial Hospital, and associate professor, pediatrics, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago; May 7, 2002, presentation, Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting, Baltimore
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