- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

The debate over the dangers of secondhand smoke didn’t end with the 1993 EPA study linking it to more than 3,000 deaths each year nationwide. The news that a federal judge later threw out the study didn’t end the discussion, either.

Today, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and independent researchers say the evidence is overwhelming of its harm, particularly for children.

A vocal minority of naysayers remain unconvinced, however, citing the uncertainties of measuring the effects of secondhand smoke in people with wavering exposure levels.

The National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program labels secondhand smoke as a known human carcinogen that causes lung cancer and an increased risk of heart disease.

The group also sticks to the 1993 report’s statistic of 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year for nonsmokers faced with secondhand smoke, plus an estimated 35,000 deaths from eschemic heart disease, caused by reduced blood supply to the heart.

Less deadly but still significant is how secondhand smoke affects respiratory problems in children, including asthma cases. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) also has been tied to the smoke.

Dr. Roman Oskoui, a cardiologist with the Washington Hospital Center, is convinced secondhand smoke is a first-rate danger. The surgeon general and other groups have done their homework on the subject, and all have concluded that such smoke can be hazardous to nonsmokers.

“They all agree it’s a real issue,” he says.

One way people can measure how much secondhand smoke they are exposed to is to take a home urine test that measures exposure levels. One such test, TobacAlert, measures levels of cotinine, a byproduct of the body’s breakdown of nicotine.

A January study points to the toxic combination of secondhand smoke and existing air pollutants as a double threat for babies.

Combined prenatal exposure to secondhand smoke and combustion-related pollutants in New York City affected the size and weight of newborns, according to a study by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, part of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

The research involved a sample of 226 infants of nonsmoking black and Dominican women in several New York neighborhoods, with measurements drawn from the umbilical cord blood of the newborns.

The results show a “significant combined effect” of the two air pollutants on birth weight and head circumference, both of which are used to measure fetal growth.

Dr. Frederica P. Perera, director of the center and principal author of the study, says “variations even in the normal range of birthrate are associated with worse cognitive development in childhood.”

“We think these are warning signs that are important to pay attention to,” Dr. Perera says. “We recommend women not smoke, but [also] don’t let other people smoke in their homes.”

Using umbilical cord blood as a measuring device “was the most direct measure” for such a study, she adds.

Such studies seem impressive, but they don’t move Steven Milloy, author of “Junk Science Judo” and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

“Secondhand smoke is so socially incorrect that people will believe anything about it,” Mr. Milloy says.

He paints existing studies with a broad brush, blaming “trumped-up statistics” for the eye-grabbing headlines.

He wields some common sense in his arguments.

“If you go back to the ‘30s and ‘40s, when half of the American men smoked, where are all those asthma cases?” he asks.

Part of the problem with studies on secondhand smoke, he says, is that measuring exposure levels can be difficult, if not impossible.

“You don’t know how much they’re exposed to,” he says. “The participants’ spouses could smoke at work or smoke outside.”

He also points to the 1993 EPA report, which a federal judge subsequently threw out for relying on inadequate science.

“It took five years for the federal judge to make that ruling,” he says. In the meantime, one anti-smoking group after another clung to the 3,000-lung-cancer-deaths-a-year figure in their works, and the media played along.

Not all research backs conventional wisdom on secondhand smoke risks. A 1998 study conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and sponsored by the World Health Organization determined that such smoke posed no major health risks.

Still, experts point to a more definable figure regarding secondhand smoke to support the anti-secondhand-smoke efforts, including the more than 60 known or suspected human carcinogens within the plumes, including benzene.

Stephen Babb, program consultant with the CDC’s office on smoking and health, says strong evidence exists that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer and heart diseases in nonsmokers exposed over time. Children suffer the brunt of the effects, including respiratory infections, bronchitis and pneumonia.

Mr. Babb admits secondhand smoke doesn’t give nonsmokers the same potent dose of the chemicals that the smoker inhales.

“On the other hand, the concentration of some of the chemicals in secondhand smoke can be comparable” to what a smoker inhales, he says.

He counters arguments that research studies overestimate the amount of smoke nonsmokers ingest from their smoking spouses at home by saying the same people might be exposed to smoke at the local bar or with friends. That information rarely gets recorded and could amplify, not diminish, the alarming figures groups such as the EPA tout.

The CDC stands by the EPA’s magic number of 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year, he says, adding that at the end of 2002, the federal court’s ruling was overturned because, it was said, the original report wasn’t a reviewable document.

Besides, he says, the EPA report isn’t the only one painting secondhand smoke as a killer.

“It’s one of many,” he says.

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