Your Neighbor’s Tobacco Smoke is Also Yours (and It’s Radioactive – 12/14/10)
Smoke Gets in More Than Eyes
Sharing has taken on new meaning. A recent study of urban households by Harvard and University of Rochester pediatric researches shows children living in apartment buildings have far more smoke products in their blood than children in their houses.
They have their neighbors to thank. The smoke comes in through the air from shared ventilation systems.
The main result – kids who lived in apartments had 45% higher cotinine levels (blood congener of nicotine) than those living in detached houses.
The Indoor Environment
America’s clean air laws have made a difference. Our outdoors may be both cooling and heating more drastically through global climate change, but indoor pollution can really hurt. Though radon and other indoor carcinogens remain a problem, indoor tobacco is still the biggest health threat. A fifth of the adult population is still smoking, and they don’t all go outside to smoke. Indoor smoke does more than get into your eyes – it gets into your blood – and from there into most cells.
Tobacco is an extraordinary substance. At least 10,000 separate chemicals have been identified in tobacco, with about a dozen classes of carcinogens among them.
That’s not including radioactivity.
When You Light Up, You Light Up
The nuclear test ban treaty has radically cut the number of atmospheric nuclear explosions since 1963, but much damage was done. Many active ingredients were released into the atmosphere, and like flurocarbons, they stay up there, recycling back into the air we breathe.
One of these is polonium-210, a radon “daughter.” Tobacco plants really love polonium 210.
Tobacco plants take up polonium 210 from the atmosphere, where it existed even before nuclear testing, and concentrate it.
There is still controversy about the overall level of radiation caused by tobacco. Studies done in the 70’s and 80’s argued smokers were like involuntary uranium miners, with very high levels of alpha radiation to the lung. More recent studies argue the risk is less.
Yet that risk may be underplayed. A study just released and reported about today by Matthew Wald in the NY Times points out males born in St. Louis in the 1960’s who died of cancer had twice the amount of strontium 90 in their original baby teeth than those who did not. Radioactive strontium-90 came from the atmosphere, and was studied as a general measure of fallout exposure. The effects of low level radiation have traditionally been difficult to measure, but many argue there is no safe level.
The result remains that tobacco smoke produces radioactive products that goes into the lungs and blood of non-smokers. Not what you want for kids or adults.
The Smoker’s Lament
It’s pretty hard being a smoker these days. Governments are constantly looking for money, so tobacco taxes go up and up. More and more public places are rooting out smoking, even (gasp) in bars! These days it’s a lot easier to march into a restaurant with a handgun on your holster than with a lit cigarette. Studies like those of Harvard and the University of Rochester will convince more people that the all buildings need be smoke free. Otherwise the stuff will get into non-smokers’ bodies, where it can be pretty hard to get it out. Rising asthma rates in kids will also argue for rousting smoking from housing projects.
What You Can Do
With the economic crisis not everyone can leave their home and go live in another. Thus it makes sense to mitigate conditions as much as possible (personal admission – I live in a condominium.)
First, open the windows. Even in winter, you want air flow. Air moves pretty quickly through an apartment with reasonable ingress and egress points.
Second, get outside. Kids need to play outside for innumerable reasons, including decreasing asthma rates, improved physical health and socialization, and avoiding chronic illnesses later in life (see “Why Your Kids Should Kids Play Outside” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthew-edlund-md/why-you-want-your-kids-to_b_698529.html)
Third, get moving. Increasing your own intake of air through exercise can do its bit for getting tobacco products roused out of your body.
A Healthy Population Requires a Healthy Environment
Indoor pollutants are dangers to most of us, and more potent public health threats than most outdoor pollutants, but the outdoor variety also count. The increased risk of lung cancer seen in many populations is very much related to soot and particulates, just one example among many.
Rest is regeneration, but rest involves more than your own body. Rest can help your immune system fight the ravages brought by secondary smoke, but it’s not just you that needs more help.
The environment in which we live also needs rest to restore itself. Increasing carbon dioxide certainly isn’t helping that renewal, but the 100,000 chemicals we’ve added to the environment since WWII also change the world, like the mercury from coal plants and a thousand other sources. Plants and animals are afflicted by these and other pollutants. Much harm then comes through what we eat and drink.
It’s not just us humans that need help – nature deserves better, too.
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