“Tobacco smoke and its residues are among the most important toxic environmental exposures to children, linked to health concerns from behavior problems such as ADHD to sudden infant death. The smoke contains over 250 poisonous gases, chemicals, and metals including hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, butane, toluene, lead, cadmium, and polunium-210. Eleven of the components are group 1 carcinogens – the most potent cancer-causing chemicals. There is no known safe level.”
– Dr. Alan Greene (2009, p. 126)
Most people don’t think of cigarette smoke as a toxin, at least not in the same way they would think about radioactive fallout or lead-painted toys. But that’s precisely what it is: A highly toxic carcinogen that poses numerous risks to your child’s health. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 different chemicals, according to Richard Husk, director of the Nicotine Dependence Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. (Brophy-Marcus, 10-26-2010) In fact, a recent study published in the Nov. 25, 2010 journal The Lancet found that secondhand smoke alone kills more than 600,000 people worldwide each year, INCLUDING MORE THAN 165,000 CHILDREN UNDER THE AGE OF FIVE. This is because the chemicals in cigarette smoke can cause cancer, lung infections, fatal asthma attacks, pneumonia, or sudden infant death syndrome. Almost half of the deaths tallied from secondhand smoke occurred in adult women, while 20% of fatalities involved children. (Szabo, 11-26-2010)
“Smoking” by Edzed Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
As scary as these numbers are, researchers used the most conservative measurements when tallying the data, so the report likely underestimates the total number of secondhand smoking deaths, according to Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. Since around 40% of kids living in the United States are exposed to secondhand smoke on a regular basis, it’s one of the most prevalent toxins out there.
Smoking is also like any other form of contamination: it leaves a trace that doesn’t easily go away. Most people have been made aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke. But once the smoke dissipates, most think that the contaminants have gone away. This simply isn’t the case. All the harmful toxins contained in the smoke live on in what is referred to as thirdhand smoke. This consists of all the particles in the smoke that settle on the walls or on the ground or on furniture. Though invisible to the naked eye, smokers leave behind a toxic film that settles on everything the smoke touches, just like soot. When a person smokes repeatedly in a confined area, this toxic soot becomes more like a toxic sludge. Some researchers are starting to think that thirdhand smoke may be even more problematic than the deadly secondhand smoke described above.
Nor does it take a lot of exposure to impart these risks. Just like other toxins, even small amounts can pose a danger. According to a recent report on tobacco by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, even brief exposure to tobacco smoke causes immediate harm to the body, damaging cells and inflaming tissue in ways that can lead to serious illness or death. Every exposure, whether firsthand or secondhand, can damage DNA. (Szabo, 12-9-2010)
The dangers that cigarettes pose to children are so pronounced and so deadly that we originally had this material in our child maltreatment book before deciding that it would be better suited here. If it seems absurd to you right now to consider smoking around children a form of child abuse, I guarantee you it won’t seem so absurd by the time you’re through with this chapter.