Columbia University Medical Center

Low Levels Of Secondhand Tobacco Smoke Seen As Cancer Risk To Young Children

New York, NY, May 3, 1999 — In an innovative study, researchers at Columbia University’s Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health have reported finding new molecular evidence that young children are harmed by environmental tobacco smoke (ETS)–even when exposure occurs at modest levels. The study, published in the May 4 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, is the first to use a battery of biologic markers to characterize the cancer risk of ETS to young children. The results underscore that ETS exposure is capable of causing molecular and genetic damage early in life, and of elevating a child’s future risk of cancer.

Dr. Frederica Perera, director of the research team, states, “An estimated 10 million children under the age of five are exposed to environmental tobacco smoke by a household member. Young children and infants in utero are likely to be more vulnerable than adults to genetic damage from carcinogens, and carcinogenic exposures during early development can increase the risk of cancer in later life.”

The research team measured four different biomarkers in the blood cells of young Latino and African-American children seen at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital’s pediatric clinic. The biomarkers, cotinine (a metabolite of nicotine), two different carcinogen-protein complexes (formed by 4-aminobiphenyl and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and sister chromatid exchanges, have been associated in other studies with an increased risk of genetic damage or cancer. Extent of exposure was assessed by interview of the children’s mothers. The subjects ranged in age from one year to six years old.

The children whose mothers or other household members smoked showed increases in all four biomarkers measured, compared to children without ETS exposure. In this study, the mothers who smoked reported an average of only 10.5 cigarettes per day (CPD) and the other household members and regular visitors an average of only 6.5 CPD. Among the children in the study, 70 percent were exposed to ETS in the home.

Dr. Perera and Dr. Deliang Tang, the first author, state, “The findings highlight the risks from ETS to young children; and they illustrate the urgent need for smoking prevention and smoking cessation programs in women and families with young children.”

This research was supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute, NIH, Department of Health and Human Services; the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; the American Cancer Society; the Lucille P. Markey Foundation and the Colette Chuda Environmental Fund.

Authors are D. Tang, R. Santella, G. Simon Cerejido, F.Crawford, F. Perera (Division of Environmental Health Sciences, Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University); D. Warburton (Departments of Genetics & Development, and Pediatrics, Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons); S. Tannenbaum and P. Skipper (Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

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