a man smoking next to a little boy

Photo by Ernst-Günther Krause (NID) from Unsplash

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.

cigarette
(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.

You might also be interested in:

About StudyFinds Staff

StudyFinds sets out to find new research that speaks to mass audiences — without all the scientific jargon. The stories we publish are digestible, summarized versions of research that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate. StudyFinds Staff articles are AI assisted, but always thoroughly reviewed and edited by a Study Finds staff member. Read our AI Policy for more information.

Our Editorial Process

StudyFinds publishes digestible, agenda-free, transparent research summaries that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate. We do not agree nor disagree with any of the studies we post, rather, we encourage our readers to debate the veracity of the findings themselves. All articles published on StudyFinds are vetted by our editors prior to publication and include links back to the source or corresponding journal article, if possible.

Our Editorial Team

Steve Fink

Editor-in-Chief

Chris Melore

Editor

Sophia Naughton

Associate Editor