Monday, November 29, 2010

More Dangers to Kids from Third hand Smoke

As most people are aware, smoking is bad for one's health. Also as most people are aware, second-hand smoke can be bad for anyone who breathes it in, particularly children. Yet a recent field of research has been documenting the dangers of third-hand smoke; a term used to describe the residual chemicals that can be left over from cigarettes even after the actual smoke clears. And a new study published earlier this year in the February 8 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA shows just how harmful such exposure might be.

A research team from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory warns that third hand smoke may be even more hazardous to children's health than first or secondhand smoke. The reason is that the remnants of cigarette smoke do not just benignly settle on surfaces to create a harmless chemical coating. Rather, their study found that leftover nicotine compounds can react with nitrous acid vapor--a chemical that is "environmentally common," and emitted from a variety of everyday sources; everything from gas appliances to vehicles. When this happens, the reaction produces carcinogenic compounds referred to as tobacco-specific nitrosamines, or TSNAs for short.

It's not merely the presence of these compounds that make third hand smoke so dangerous. After all, secondhand smoke contains TSNAs as well. But the presence of nitrous acid in a room or car can increase the numbers of these compounds several times over in the hours after a person stops smoking. More importantly, because this nicotine residue can linger on surfaces for weeks or even months, it can be a more persistent form of exposure than first or secondhand smoke, exposing children to carcinogens on an ongoing basis. This is what makes it so potentially dangerous.

TSNAs can be inhaled, ingested and absorbed through the skin. As usual, children are the most vulnerable to third hand smoke, just as they are with any cigarette smoke. Their small size means they get a much higher exposure per body weight, and with still developing bodies they also have the most to lose from hazardous chemical exposures of any type.

Though these findings are preliminary, they join a body of other research which has documented the dangers of third-hand smoke. Cigarette smoke--complete with all of its toxins--does not just vanish into thin air, despite the visual illusion that the wafting smoke gives of such. Its contents settle onto the surrounding areas in microscopic amounts too small to see, but they're there. Smoking and non-smoking parents alike need to be aware of this.

Children, and young children especially, are then exposed to these chemicals when they sit on a couch, put a toy in their mouth, or do any of those other things normal kids do. Perhaps the most toxic form of exposure can occur when a parent smokes in a car. Even if they do it when their kids aren't present, it's a confined space that will concentrate nicotine residue. If parents then use the same car to transport their kids, it can expose them to these TSNAs.

Public education campaigns have gotten most people to cease smoking around their children. Yet this needs to be taken one step further. Parents should avoid smoking anywhere their children share space, which includes the house or the family car. If you're not one of the 20% of Americans who smoke, you might tactfully spread this information to any of your friends that do.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Traumatizing Tadpoles

Just admit it. Somehow, someway, I've managed to peer inside your head once again to find out exactly what you're thinking. Or are you going to try to deny that such a thought has ever crossed your mind? The idea of intentionally traumatizing baby tadpoles apparently crossed someone’s mind, as I was intrigued when I came across the practice in a science article. Why would anyone want to traumatize tadpoles, you ask? Aside from giving the future axe-murderers of society ideas for something to do on Friday nights, the concept was employed to test the ability of tadpoles to learn from their environment, even before they hatch.

A research team at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada exposed wood frog eggs to water which had been doused with slurry of freshly ground-up wood frog tadpoles. Naturally, such an environment could be scary to aspiring tadpoles. Imagine taking your child to a daycare with ground up baby bits everywhere. Researchers then paired this experience with water from the tanks of fire-belly salamanders. Since the salamanders don't live around wood frogs in nature, their scent by itself shouldn't provoke any reaction, as they're not a natural predator.

Yet when the eggs hatched, tadpoles that had been exposed to the scent of the salamander alongside the slurry of their ground-up nursery school friends, considered the scent of the salamander by itself to be threatening. Un-traumatized tadpoles didn't have the same reaction.

In a follow up study by another team led by Maud Ferrari of the same University, the same type of embryos were exposed to salamander scent, this time with no morbid slurry of dead comrades. Instead, they exposed them to this mix of salamander scent and dead playmates after they hatched. In theory, this alarming exposure could give the youngsters a life-long fear of the salamanders. Yet tadpoles who had already been exposed to the scent earlier in their life, when nothing seemed to be amiss, disregarded the scent as irrelevant. So tadpoles are capable of learning not only what to be afraid of, but they also learn when it isn't time to panic. Turns out the little fellas are smarter than most people would have ever thought.

What all this nonsense accomplished, other than allowing us to create one of the most intriguing blog post titles ever, is to show that even among some of the earth's lowliest creatures, learning takes place from the very beginning. Its part of a new wave of research revealing that right from the start, baby creatures of all kinds show an extraordinary knack to absorb their environment and adjust accordingly.

The moral of the story: fetuses can be aware of their environment to a degree that most don't fully appreciate. That, and under no circumstances should you expose pregnant women to a slurry of ground up baby bits. If a tadpole is capable of learning before birth, imagine how much more so a baby human picks up from their surroundings.

When I read about this study, I began to think about all the other research I've explored regarding the consequences of things such as conflict or maternal stress on fetal development. The studies are numerous and the research conclusive: negative environments can adversely affect fetal development. Yet something about this study gave me a whole new perspective on things, and maybe it will you as well. At the very least, it's an interesting example of how wonderful and complex life can be even at the smallest levels.

So before any future little ones get here, remember: friendly voices, calm tones, and a healthy, nurturing environment babies are learning from you, even before they're born. They're absorbing their surroundings; reading any conflict in the environment and observing the tones of voices in their future caretakers, and even adjusting their development accordingly. Let’s make sure to give them lots of happy thoughts.

1. Susan Milius, "Smart from the start," Science News, Vol. 176(4):26-29, August 15, 2009

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