Get the Lead Out


…and other environmental toxins, too. From the Miami Herald:

Americans have dramatically cut the levels of lead and secondhand tobacco smoke in their blood and urine, a new federal study found Thursday….

Levels of the key chemical marker for secondhand smoke fell 75 percent for adults and about 68 percent for children compared with a decade earlier.

Only 1.6 percent of children 5 and younger had lead levels that traditionally have been considered high. That's down from 4.4 percent in the early 1990s.

Whole thing here.

The bad news is apparently that levels of cadmium are up a bit. I say "apparently" because from the story above it's unclear whether cadmium levels are actually going up or whether the government has lowered the acceptable amount recently. Which is hardly the same thing.

Indeed, even the lead level stuff can be confusing. There's no question that switching to unleaded gasoline in the '70s and a few other policies really got most of the lead out of the environment. However, it's also true that government officials are known to monkey with numbers to create more of a problem than there is. For instance, in the 1990s, the level of lead in the blood of a "poisoned" child was often lower than the average for kids in the '60s (go here and scroll).

And as Reason's Jacob Sullum has pointed out in For Your Own Good and elsewhere, the triumph over second-hand smoke is highly unlikely to yield much in the way of increases in health for the simple reason that second-hand smoke is not much of a threat to begin with.

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  1. I take it you mean “…second-hand smoke is not much of a threat…”

  2. It might not be wise to assume that the lead levels common in the 60s were safe, just because they were common.

  3. I read on here repeatedly the claim that second-hand smoke is not harmful. Could someone please provide a link to a credible source that verifies this claim beyond a shadow of doubt?

  4. Well, SPD, you seem to have an awfully high standard of proof for this kind of dispute. What if (and I guarantee this will be the way it turns out) neither side can verify their claims beyond a shadow of a doubt?

    May I suggest going with the preponderance of the evidence, with maybe a little weighting to reflect what the various parties are trying to do with the information? That is, if someone is pushing an issue to get some kind of state program going, I think they should do a little better than a mere preponderance, but that’s just me.

  5. I don’t think that study is available, SPD. It seems that every time a group runs a study that finds that SHS is not very harmful they supress the results for political reasons.

  6. RC,

    I just can’t look at any study anymore without questioning the motive of the publishing group. Who funds them? What do they hope to achieve by making public their findings?

    I simply don’t know whom to believe at this point.

    I’m not trying to be cynical, I just want to know why I should agree with claims that SHS isn’t harmful. Maybe it doesn’t have to be beyond a shadow of a doubt as I’d previously written, but simply saying it isn’t hamrful just doesn’t cut it for me.

  7. I personally am of the opinion that second hand smoke isn’t good for you. And maybe one should try and avoid it if possible. But then again, I dont think that automobile / bus / car exhaust fumes are very good for you either.

    I don’t think too many people are trying to make the claim that there is no harm in it, its just a matter of degree as compared to other everyday things we eat/breathe. Up until this point, I haven’t heard much credible evidence that is worse for you than many many other everyday things we intake, and it seems that the people that are the loudest against second hand smoke are chicken little types and its hard to take them that seriously. (I remember at one point someone trying to say that second hand smoke is worse than smoking because the smoke is unfiltered when you inhale it. Things like that make it hard to take these people seriously)

  8. I don’t think people are claiming that second hand smoke is harmless, rather that there is no proof to the contrary. In the absence of any such proof of harm, the old “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” justification for regulation holds no water.

    The EPA study that is usually cited as proof of adverse effects is a classic statistical example of changing the criteria after the fact to fit the data. There may be some other *valid* study out there that demonstrates adverse health effects of SHS, but I haven’t seen it.

  9. The bad news is apparently that levels of cadmium are up a bit.

    No problem, I’ve always thought Cadmium makes great milk chocolate bars.

  10. Douglas,

    True, but they make rabbits cluck like chickens. Damn you, animal testing!

  11. SPD – The WHO funded a study that found no statisticaly significant risk caused by SHS, either from exposure at work or from a smoking spouse. But when they released it they tap danced around the fact that the increased rate of cancer with exposure wasn’t significant.

    I think that’s pretty much proof that this was a study that was trying to find a link but didn’t, so I trust the finding.

  12. I had thought that surely if secondhand smoke was that harmful, that we would be able to find some evidence of that in pets, who with their shorter lifespans and more controlled environments/diets (generally speaking) might make health hazards more readily detectable. As it happens lung cancer is not at all common in dogs and cats, and to the best of my knowledge from the veterinary journals I’ve read, no causation (or even correlation) has been demonstrated.

    EXCEPT: Interestingly enough, there does appear to be some correlation between smoking and stomach cancers in housecats. It is theorized that the reason for this is that a cat’s fur becomes coated with the same nicotine & carcinogenic film that coats other surfaces in a smoky environment, and the cats *consume* this substance when they groom themselves, many times a day, every day for years.

  13. “I remember at one point someone trying to say that second hand smoke is worse than smoking because the smoke is unfiltered when you inhale it.”

    Wow. That’s just…wow.

  14. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised it cadmium levels really are going up. Think about how common cadmium was in consumer products in 1990 (not too common) Now I’ve got piles and piles of NiCd rechargable batteries. (Although in recent years, NiMh batteries are becoming more common)

  15. Chuck: Do you have a link to the EPA study or a citicism of it?

    Matt: Same with the WHO study.

    I’m not challenging. I’d be intested in reading more about them.

  16. tsiroth,

    On a related note, when one of my cats was having problems getting over a bout of what was orignially diagnosed as pneumonia, the vet and I were talking about potential causes of bacterial build-up. I suggested the cat might have a depressed immune system from some sort of inflamation/allergy. The doctor didn’t seem to think so, until I told her that we are a smoking household. The doctor then said “Ohhh…you smoke in the house? Well that could be causing an allergic reaction”

    What’s the point? I think that some pets do get bothered by the second hand smoke as well as the dust that forms from all the smoking. At least thats what the vet seemed to be telling me. She reccomended we try and smoke outside because the smoke could very well be an irritant to the animal and any innflamation can cause his immune system to be depressed allowing other illnesses to take hold.

  17. ChicagoTom:

    You give me the oppurtunity to mention one of my pet peeves: It is not possible to be *allergic* to cigarette smoke, as cigarette smoke contains no allergens.

    Certainly it is an irritant which can cause inflammation of tissues. Your cat might be more sensitive than others (it is possible to get “used to” smoke to some degree), contributing to a depressed immune system, or it might temporarily become more sensitive to the smoke after the illness began because it already had upper respiratory problems.

    Regardless, not smoking in the same room as your cat(or better, smoking outside)while it’s recovering from pneumonia is good advice.

  18. ChicagoTom, Joe: I remember quite clearly being taught in grade school that secondhand smoke was much worse than first-hand smoke, because it wasn’t filtered, etc. As such, most of the negative health effects of smoking affect the children of smokers, because they’re exposed to all the unfiltered secondhand smoke, which is more dangerous to them than the first-hand smoke is to the smokers. So, we have to stop smoking! It’s for the children!

  19. Gronk,

    you could start with Jacob Sullum’s book, “For Your Own Good: the Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health”. Of course, the study report itself is not reproduced in the book. Just do a Google search, and you’ll get lots of links (hint: secondhand smoke is called Environmental Tobacco Smoke, ETS, in the literature). If you don’t already know a few basics about hypothesis testing in statistics or about epidemiological studies, it will help to get some background on those as well, since much of the (legitimate) criticism hinges on the proper interpretation of the statistical analysis.

    I started researching it about five years ago when our faculty senate considered a proposal to make the university a smoke-free campus, outdoors as well as indoors. The proposal didn’t get too far, but the fact that it was being seriously considered is kind of scary.

  20. SPD writes, “I read on here repeatedly the claim that second-hand smoke is not harmful. Could someone please provide a link to a credible source that verifies this claim beyond a shadow of doubt?”

    Second-hand smoke is harmful. Lead is harmful. Mercury is harmful. Aspirin is harmful. Salt is harmful. Sunlight is harmful.

    All things are harmful…at high enough doses! That’s a truism of toxicology…”The dose makes the poison.”

    So when you ask for proof that second-hand smoke is not harmful “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” you’re asking for proof of something that is definitely NOT true.

    I’ll give you a personal example. I used to bowl. A lot! Every Friday and Saturday night, I spent about 4 hours in the bowling alley, typically bowling about 20-25 games each night. I found that I frequently had a bad headache on Saturday morning, and an even worse headache on Sunday morning. I thought it was from staying up late (I bowled from 11 PM – 2 AM). But I found out later–having gotten the same headache after spending some hours in a pool hall–that it was probably tobacco smoke.

    So tobacco smoke probably DOES cause me harm. But it’s a question of degree of exposure…i.e., “the dose makes the poison.” When I bowled with my family for just an hour or so (and because the bowling lanes were typically almost empty when we went), the cigarette smoke wasn’t a problem.

    Similarly, when people are smoking outdoors, and I’m exposed to that smoke only for a few minutes, it’s definitely not a problem.

    So when trying to evaluate the hazards of second-hand smoke, one needs to know such things as:

    1) What is the length of the exposure,

    2) What is the concentration of the smoke (heavy, light, somewhere in between),

    3) How often does the exposure occur, and

    4) Who are the individuals being exposed (are they extraordinarily sensitive, or extraordinarily insensitive, or somewhere in between)?

    No one can say that secondhand tobacco smoke doesn’t cause harm. But what people CAN say is that, for typical exposure levels, durations, and frequencies, most individuals (i.e., excluding those who are extraordinarily sensitive) do not show harm from secondhand tobacco smoke exposure.

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