Remember the old Nat King Cole Song “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”? Well, if you live in an apartment or condominium, that smoke not only gets into your children’s eyes, it gets into their lungs and bodies as well. And that’s not a good thing.
A recent report in the journal Pediatrics makes it pretty clear that a high percentage of kids who live in apartment–and in fact kids who live in other environments as well where people don’t smoke inside the home–have evidence in their blood tests that many of them are exposed to the byproducts of tobacco smoke. And according to the researchers, it’s enough to make them sick–and will probably make you sick as well when you learn about the problem. [more]
The research was very straight forward: the researchers looked at 5002 children through the age of 18 who were part of a regular nationwide health survey which also collected blood and urine samples. They evaluated the child’s housing, whether it was detached, attached or an apartment as well as whether or not anyone smoked inside, and whether the children themselves were smokers. (If so, they were not included in the study). Then, the scientists measured the amount of cotinine in the children’s blood samples. Cotinine is a substance which reflects prior nicotine exposure.
Most of the kids (81.4%) who lived where no one smoked inside lived in detached family homes, while only 11.6% lived in an apartment.
The overall average amount of cotinine in the blood of all the children studied (remember, these were children who lived in a home where no one smoked inside) was 0.036 ng/ml. (Don’t worry too much about the numbers, and focus on the relationships among the various categories to follow. Theoretically, if someone had no exposure to tobacco products in any form, the number should be zero.) For children who lived in apartments, the average number was 0.075 ng/ml, or twice as much, while those living in attached houses was 0.053 and in detached homes 0.031.
84.5% of the children who lived in an apartment, according to this study, had cotinine levels in their blood that indicated recent tobacco smoke exposure, compared to 79.6% living in attached houses and 70.3% who lived in detached homes.
There were some ethnic differences in the exposures as well, with 99% of white children and 96% of black children who lived in apartments having evidence of tobacco smoke in their blood, while the frequency was lower for Hispanic and other ethnic groups. (The authors state that there are lower smoking prevalence rates for these other groups, which may account for the difference.)
The implications of this study are stunning: even if you live inside where no one smokes, as a child you are at risk. Aside from the overarching impact of second hand smoke, there are special direct impacts on children, including respiratory problems and asthma, in addition to proven learning disabilities. So this is no small matter.
And how can you possibly explain that children who live in homes where no one smokes inside can have increased levels of tobacco smoke byproducts in their blood?
The authors comment that even though parents and others may smoke outside the home, they still bring tobacco stuff inside the residence on their clothes. Or, tobacco byproducts can get into the furniture and the walls and still cause problems. And, of course, there are other places where kids may get exposed to tobacco smoke.
But in an apartment, you don’t have a lot of choice about exposure. Your neighbor next door whose smoke seeps into your apartment is one problem. Or the fellow down the hall, or on another floor if you have shared ventilation. The bottom line: if you are in a shared type of housing, whether it is an apartment or a condominium, this research shows that what your neighbor does in their own space has implications for your health as well. You can run but you can’t hide: the tobacco smoke will find you.
Here is what the authors have to say about the rights of individuals in their own homes:
“Concern has been raised that dictating what can be done in a private dwelling is an infringement on personal privacy and liberty; however, this argument holds only if smoking in an adjacent apartment has no impact on one’s neighbors. Legal doctrine supports restrictions on private behavior if there are consequences for others, such as noise levels, noxious odors, or release of toxic chemicals. Tobacco smoke can be categorized both as a noxious odor and a toxic chemical. In addition, there is a strong probability that exposure may result in physical harm, particularly for children with underlying illnesses such as asthma. A recent analysis addressing smoke-free public housing argued that phasing in such a policy as new leases were signed and existing ones renewed would be justified on legal and social justice grounds.”
And, my friends, this isn’t just an issue about public housing. I am familiar with a condominium association that recently polled the owners in an upscale building in a major city whether they wanted to have the building go smoke-free (and that includes the balconies outside the units). The smoke has become so intolerable on certain floors that people literally hold their noses going to and from the elevator. You can only imagine what that does to the health of the occupants of the other units, not to mention the resale value of their condos.
Finally, I have to admit that several years ago someone from Illinois approached me at a meeting and implored me to do something about a similar problem in her own apartment building. I told here I wasn’t aware that much could be done, but did pass along her concerns to our advocacy team.
Now, with this new research study, there is a sound scientific basis to raise the question once again, maybe even nationwide. Smokers can no longer claim that their habit does no harm to others, so long as they restrict their behaviors to their own private homes.
Those of us who live in apartments or condominiums all too often know that there aren’t very effective sound barriers between residences, especially in modern buildings. And if sound can get through the walls, don’t think that cigarette smoke is far behind.
My sense of the situation?
I suspect that we are going to see more and more concern about this issue in the coming decade. And this well done report may be just the evidence we need to prove that it is more than the smell of the smoke that is what bothers our lungs. This research is one more piece of confirming evidence that the smoke of others can be a true danger to your own health.