Azara Blog: Children are allegedly affected by smoke in blocks of flats

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Date published: 2010/12/13

The BBC says:

Children living in flats have 45% more exposure to tobacco smoke than those in detached houses, a US study says.

Researchers from Harvard and Rochester Universities say that is because the smoke seeps through walls and shared ventilation systems.

They tested cotinine levels in blood samples from 5,000 children across the US for the study in Pediatrics.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said there was a "strong case" for making blocks of flats smoke free.

Researchers limited the sample in this study to children who live in a household where nobody smokes.

They looked for cotinine - a product of nicotine and a highly sensitive marker for tobacco - in the children's blood.

The study found that 73% of the 5,000 children analysed were exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke.

Overall, researchers found that 84.5% of children who were living in blocks of flats had a cotinine level that indicated recent tobacco-smoke exposure, compared with 79.6% of children who were living in attached houses and 70.3% who were living in detached houses.

Dr Jonathan Winickoff, study author and associate professor of paediatrics at Harvard Medical School, said: "If your neighbours are smoking then you are exposed if you live through the wall in a semi-detached house. In apartment buildings this effect is magnified. Smoke contaminates the whole building."

"This study is the last link in the chain of evidence. It demonstrates the overwhelming need for smoke-free buildings," he said.

He continued: "In years to come, people will shake their heads in disbelief that there was ever smoking in homes where children live, eat, sleep and breathe."

It's quite possible they have found a real effect here, although it is not obvious. For one thing, people who live in blocks of flats and who do not smoke might well have friends who do smoke, e.g. in the same block. If you step into a smoker's home it only takes a few seconds before the smoke sticks to your clothes and makes breathing unenjoyable. Living in blocks of flats is correlated with being poor (relative to living in detached houses) and being poor is correlated with smoking. It's quite possible that children visiting friends whose parents smoke is the problem here, more than the walls and ventilation systems. So the effect allegedly found here might be bogus.

It's always worrying when some scientist makes blatantly political statements like Winickoff does. It's quite obvious that he does not like smokers and would like to find reasons to persecute smokers. This immediately makes his scientific work less credible, because science should be driven by the need to know, not the need to back up one's own pet views.

It is also unfortunate that the BBC gave no balance to these political views. Instead they quote ASH, a well-known special interest pressure group that also does not like and wants to further persecute smokers, i.e. has exactly the same political views as Winickoff.

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