Secondhand smoke increases levels of toxic metals in a child’s mouth, study reveals

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Tobacco smoke has long been recognized as a significant contributor to indoor air pollution and a health hazard. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 41,000 nonsmoking adults die each year in the United States due to exposure to secondhand smoke. However, a recent study led by Penn State researchers has shed light on a new concern: exposure to tobacco smoke increases the presence of heavy metals in children’s saliva, posing even more potential health risks.

The study investigated the correlation between smoke exposure and levels of heavy metals in children’s saliva.

“Tobacco smoke contains thousands of chemical compounds, most of which are harmful to humans. While increases in smoke-free policies and awareness of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) hazards have contributed to a substantial reduction in exposure in ETS in recent years, some children continue to experience extremely high levels of exposure,” says lead researcher Lisa Gatzke-Kopp, a professor of human development and family studies.

The research team found significant associations between the levels of cotinine (a nicotine metabolite) in children’s saliva and the levels of essential trace metals such as copper and zinc, as well as non-essential heavy metals like lead. Children with higher cotinine levels also exhibited higher levels of heavy metals in their saliva. These findings highlight the potential health risks associated with exposure to tobacco smoke and the presence of heavy metals in children.

The study was conducted as part of the Family Life Project, a long-term study focused on the development of children in rural areas. Researchers recruited approximately 1,300 families in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and analyzed a subset of 238 children 7.5 years-old and under. By measuring levels of cotinine and metals in the children’s saliva, the researchers gained insight into the link between smoke exposure and heavy metal presence.

(Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash)

Is vaping any safer?

While vaping has been promoted as a safer alternative to traditional tobacco products, the study also raises concerns about the potential presence of toxic metals in e-cigarette aerosols.

“In these studies, metals were detected in the aerosolized vapors, indicating that they, along with the nicotine, are also capable of being transmitted as second- and thirdhand smoke,” Gatzke-Kopp explains in a university release.

Furthermore, the researchers suggest that saliva tests could serve as a non-invasive method for assessing exposure to trace metals, both environmentally and occupationally.

“Saliva tests are non-invasive and easy to get from a child, and, as this work shows, there is a lot of value in monitoring via saliva,” Gatzke-Kopp adds.

However, one challenge is the absence of established guidelines for appropriate metal levels in human saliva. Gatzke-Kopp highlighted the need for future research to establish these guidelines, which would enable comparisons between salivary metals and various clinical measures, including behavioral and cognitive assessments.

The findings of this study provide valuable insights into the potential health risks associated with secondhand smoke and the presence of heavy metals in children’s saliva. It underscores the importance of continued efforts to reduce exposure to tobacco smoke and develop effective preventive interventions to safeguard children’s health.

The study is published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology.

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