Mommy's Deadly Embrace

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USA Today reports with alarm that researchers have found cotinine, a nicotine metabolite, in the urine and hair of babies who live with smokers—even when their parents did not smoke in their presence. It seems components of tobacco smoke cling to smokers and to household surfaces and get picked up by babies who come into contact with these intermediaries, a phenomenon "some doctors are calling 'thirdhand' smoke." Even something as seemingly benign as a mother's hug may be passing along deadly toxins and carcinogens!

Not until the second-to-last paragraph do we get this caveat, courtesy of "Brett Singer, a scientist at California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory": "The million-dollar question is: How dangerous is this?…We can't say for sure this is a health hazard."

No kidding. Since measuring the hazards of secondhand smoke, which delivers doses of toxins and carcinogens that are tiny compared to what smokers absorb, presents a daunting, probably insurmountable challenge to epidemiology, what reason is there to believe we will ever be able to confirm the imagined dangers of "thirdhand smoke," which delivers doses that are even tinier?

Notice where the logic of "thirdhand smoke" leads us. Not only are parents who smoke around their children, or in the same house as their children, or even outside that house, guilty of child abuse; anyone who smokes is potentially guilty as well, since the contaminants may be passed along via residue in a room later occupied by children, physical contact with children, or physical contact with some third party who later interacts with children (although that would be "fourthhand smoke," I guess). To err on the side of caution—which is where we always should err when it comes to the welfare of children, of course—everyone should just stop smoking right now. Then there won't be any need to call the cops.

NEXT: Pining for a Brain Tumor

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  1. But if you don’t stop smoking we can and will call the cops, for the babies, for the ggod of society and for your own good.

  2. We are all child abusers now

  3. Let’s just ban tobacco and transfer mounds of wealth to organized crime as the government fights its War on Smokes.

    While we’re at it, let’s do the same for fatty foods. Why wait? I want to see guys with tommy guns in Chicago again.

  4. I’m really starting to hate the children.

  5. They’d better not go after caffeine. They’ll take my coffee from my trembling hands.

  6. “Thirdhand” smoke? Ha ha ha.
    You know, I can already anticipate how just exposing children to the word “tobacco” will be referred to as “fourth-hand” smoke.

  7. Oh, caffeine is on the list. Rest assured of that. Soon, NoDoz pushers will be out there, shooting each other, and making millions. How much would you pay on the black market for caffeine? Each day?

    Let me be the first to state that Starbucks is already preparing to go underground. Their pricing certainly indicates an affinity for pushing expensive crap on addicts 🙂

  8. PL

    Given the eating and smoking habits of Chicagoans, this fatty-food/nicotine mafia would surely be considered a big box retailer, right? Are we going to have to take the bus to Evergreen Park just to get a pizza and smokes?

  9. This tomacco tastes like grandma.

  10. Since measuring the hazards of secondhand smoke, which delivers doses of toxins and carcinogens that are tiny compared to what smokers absorb, presents a daunting, probably insurmountable challenge to epidemiology, what reason is there to believe we will ever be able to confirm the imagined dangers of “thirdhand smoke,” which delivers doses that are even tinier?

    Actually, it’s a no-brainer. If tobacco was one tenth as deadly as the health nazis say it is most smoking parents’ children would die. Certainly there shouldn’t be any adults over 50 who grew up in a home with a smoker. As I did.

  11. So is nicotine the carcinogen now? ‘Cause cotinine is a nicotine metabolite. I know Jacob has been over this ground many, many times, but jeez.

  12. Are we to the point yet of piss testing for tobacco, and putting anyone who fails up against the wall?

  13. You know, I can already anticipate how just exposing children to the word “tobacco” will be referred to as “fourth-hand” smoke.

    Ed, this is already the rational that’s being used here in Washington to ban smoking in public parks. There is no credible health risk to anyone else (you’re in the friggin’ outdoors, fer Chrissake) but some people don’t want any kids to be able SEE you smoking. You’re polluting their MINDS. Accept this logic and then they’ll carry it to the next level, which will be ‘sanitizing’ all references to tobacco out of films and media. A whole profitable little cottage industry of people who digitally airbrush those smokes out of Bogart’s hand in Casablanca.

    You know, you hear arguments on the tobacco prohibition issue that sound absurd, but then damned if they don’t come up in reality. For instance, here they’ve now extended the ‘indoor’ smoking ban to the outdoor bus shelters and, now, the buses. Not inside the buses– the buses have stickers on the doors directing you not to smoke within 25 feet outside of them. So, literally, you can now be standing behind a running bus, sucking in diesel fumes, but god forbid that you smoke a cigarette– that would be creating a health hazard! Or you can be standing on a sidewalk by yourself smoking, have a bus pull up alongside you, and you’re now suddenly in a no-smoking zone.

    This is all really about social engineering and controlling behavior, with an ultimate aim of de facto prohibition– not just ‘protecting non smokers’. Until the state starts getting serious about keeping minors 25 feet away from, say, charcoal barbeques, at all times, all places, this is all just prohibitionist ideology masquerading as science.

  14. A once heard a UC Berkeley professor say that they can find trace amounts of nicotine in purified water. It’s everywhere. But not necessarily a hazard.

  15. To err on the side of caution?which is where we always should err when it comes to the welfare of children, of course?everyone should just stop smoking right now.

    Or… Stop having kids.

  16. I’ve said this before, but my mother smoked when she was pregnant with me, and smoked for the whole 19 years I lived with her, AND fed me formula rather than breast milk. Can someone PLEASE tell me what health problems I’m experiencing as a result? Honestly, I feel fine.

  17. Jennifer, your relative health is no reason for you not to sue your mom, and for us to take away any posessions you might not aquire through your lawsuit for the state to sell in case she is found guilty.

  18. I’ve said this before, but my mother smoked when she was pregnant with me, and smoked for the whole 19 years I lived with her, AND fed me formula rather than breast milk. Can someone PLEASE tell me what health problems I’m experiencing as a result?

    Jennifer,
    Smoking while pregnant causes low birth weight, stunted growth rates, and osteoporosis and therefore a tendency to hold the head at strange angles.

    this is already the rational that’s being used here in Washington to ban smoking in public parks. There is no credible health risk to anyone else (you’re in the friggin’ outdoors, fer Chrissake)

    J. A. Lurker,
    As you well know, Ron Bailey has bought into the “fact” that humans are a significant source of global warming (I’m not sure if he thinks we are more significant than solar sunspot cycles, volcanic gases or the natural result of coming out of an ice age) but cigarette smoke does contains known green house gases. Smoking must not be allowed outdoors. Think of the children.

  19. The big lie here is that “detectable” means significant. Modern analytical technology can detect concentrations down to the parts per billion at which point no chemical or element has any biological effect.

    So many lay people have this weird idea that the chemicals that make up the world stay in neat little compartments and that any amount anyone detects outside of the supposed compartment indicates a problem. In truth, you can find traces of virtually any substance anywhere if you look hard enough.

  20. Shannon, you made the point I was going to make, but it’s even worse than what you wrote: parts per trillion is now a common measure of various substances.

    Remember, everyone: the dose makes the poison.

  21. Can someone explain to me why finding nicotine in children’s urine would even be a problem here – let alone, “third-hand smoke”?

    After all, the hazard of cigarette smoke isn’t nicotine – it’s the inhalation of tar and ash (as well as other by-products). Presumably if it made it into the kids’ intestines, it’s not causing their lungs undue problems. And that’s not even considering the incredibly small quantities involved here. Seriously, I’m wondering why this is an issue…

  22. You guys are so five minutes ago. The new concern is fourth-hand smoke. All the young people are talking about it.

  23. I’ve said this before, but my mother smoked when she was pregnant with me, and smoked for the whole 19 years I lived with her, AND fed me formula rather than breast milk. Can someone PLEASE tell me what health problems I’m experiencing as a result?

    Didn’t you mention in another thread something along the lines of you are shorter than most ppl you talk to? Do you think this could be a result of prenatal smoking ?

  24. The big lie here is that “detectable” means significant. Modern analytical technology can detect concentrations down to the parts per billion at which point no chemical or element has any biological effect.

    Tell that to the ppl analyzing my urine sample 🙂

  25. you are shorter than most ppl you talk to? Do you think this could be a result of prenatal smoking ?

    I am shorter than the average American woman, but I think that’s more DNA than smoking–I’m still taller than my mother or maternal grandmother were.

  26. Wait, I thought the carcinogens were in the TAR, not the nicotine. I thought I actually read somewhere that nicotine was found to be ANTI-carcinogenic, though, of course, not so much as to effect the harmfulness of the tar (does anyone remember reading such?). I thought straight nicotine was like the Spice – addictive but stimulating.

  27. Personally, I am allergic to nicotine fumes. I cannot stand to be near anyone who has smoked recently, nor be in a room where people habitually smoke.

    I would not be able to function in society at all if smoking were permittd in indoor public spaces.

  28. And I am highly sensitive to the scent used in your anti-perspirant, Sam. In fact, I am breaking out in hives just from proximity to the Internet tubes which carried your post to my monitor.

  29. We laugh now, but just you wait. This is exactly the kind of story that suddenly ends up in newspapers all across the country and then ends up being received wisdom. Bandwagons are the fastest means of transportation.

    Sam, that’s too bad that you can’t be around smoking environments, but that’s largely your problem. Don’t expect everybody else to modify their behaviour to accomodate you.

    What bothers me is that smokers are, as far as I can tell, remarkably accomodating towards the smoke nazis, but it’s NEVER ENOUGH. I live in a town where it is now illegal to smoke inside anywhere, including bars. Including the outside decks and patios of bars. Very, very soon, it will be illegal to smoke anywhere but inside your home…unless you have children and then that will be illegal as well. But these same sancitmonious smoke nazis who preach against nicotine drive all day long, polluting the atmosphere more in one day than I do in a month.

  30. “you are shorter than most ppl you talk to? Do you think this could be a result of prenatal smoking ?

    I am shorter than the average American woman, but I think that’s more DNA than smoking–I’m still taller than my mother or maternal grandmother were.”

    The thing is, you will never know, and there is no way to tease out the influence of the various factors for your individual case. Children with low birth weight also have reduced cognitive functioning. Even if you are above average in intelligence (as I am told all the H&R crowd are), there is the possibility that your mom’s smoking knocked a few points off your IQ. Not something you would notice. This is an issue in which your particular case has nothing to say about the validity of the counter argument. We are talking relative risk…

    Prenatal exposure to alcohol is far worse than tobacco, but the best current work shows prenatal exposure to tobacco to be worse than heroin or cocaine. Prenatal alcohol, by the way, does not automatically lead to a person with a disability, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bad thing to do to your unborn child… it is very risky. But I bet if we could get the people on this board to talk to their mom’s a large % would find prenatal ethonal exposure. Those without cognitive deficits could not use their individual case as an argument that drinking while pregnant is not a problem. Those with cognitive deficits might make the argument “my mom drank, but I turned out alright,” but that would just be evidence of their deficit.

  31. Why is being short a bad thing? I’m tall and I have numerous bumps and scars on my head because of it. Oh, don’t get me started on flying coach. Being tall sucks unless you’re a pro basketball player.

    Why is having a high IQ a good thing? Being above average is probably best. I have a high IQ and it’s brought me mostly mental anguish. Ignorance is bliss!

  32. I’m sick and tired of these third and fourth hand cheapskate bastards trying to cop a buzz off me for free. Buy your own damn cigarettes.

  33. My mom smokes. I’m a little short for a guy (5’7″) but I have three brothers in the range of 5’10” to 6’2″. And I believe we are all of above-average intelligence. For what it’s worth.

    I would not be able to function in society at all if smoking were permittd in indoor public spaces.

    Is there no treatment for that? My mom is allergic to dozens of things but it went away after treatment.

  34. I have a high IQ and it’s brought me …

    Bragger 🙂

  35. If we didn’t produce children with cognitive deficits, we would eventually have a higher percentage of relatively intelligent adults. As a result, the health food and alternative medicine industries would go belly up. In the long run, cognitive deficits are good business.

  36. Here’s what I don’t get. Apparently if you or I were to smoke and handle a child, we’d be some kind of outlaw, but if a prominent bassist (felon) owns an M-60 machine gun, it’s no big deal. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2006/08/08/entertainment/e075741D10.DTL&hw=bassist&sn=004&sc=478

    While I think it’s an interesting way to look at the 2nd amendment, I gotta ask, where’s my machinegun?

  37. Prenatal exposure to alcohol is far worse than tobacco, but the best current work shows prenatal exposure to tobacco to be worse than heroin or cocaine.

    Wow! I’d be better off had my mother been a cokehead? And the harm I suffered from her smoking is “I could be even smarter than I am now?” But this could be said about every human being on the planet. I need more convincing evidence of harm than that.

  38. The public sector appears to have learned that lesson as well, Joe 🙂

    Save me!!!!!

  39. “Wait, I thought the carcinogens were in the TAR, not the nicotine. I thought I actually read somewhere that nicotine was found to be ANTI-carcinogenic, though, of course, not so much as to effect the harmfulness of the tar (does anyone remember reading such?).”

    Well, actually that is confusing way to put it, because nicotine is a component of tar as well, since tar is simply tobacco smoke condensate. A better way to put it would be that carcinogenic compounds are present in the non-nicotine fraction of tobacco tar. I’m not aware of any good evidence indicating that nicotine is anti-carcinogenic in humans, and in fact, there is good evidence that nicotine inhibits apoptosis of damaged human epithelial cells (the type of cells that line the lungs), which in theory would increase the risk of tumorogenesis.

    And in any event, these types of studies don’t measure nicotine and cotinine because these compounds are though to be harmful. Rather, they are simply used as markers, indicating exposure to tobacco smoke compounds in general.

  40. “Prenatal exposure to alcohol is far worse than tobacco, but the best current work shows prenatal exposure to tobacco to be worse than heroin or cocaine.

    Wow! I’d be better off had my mother been a cokehead? And the harm I suffered from her smoking is “I could be even smarter than I am now?” But this could be said about every human being on the planet.”

    No, you wouldn’t necessarily have been better off with a crackhead mother, but your risk of adverse health effects due specifically to prenatal exposure would have been lower. Personally, I would fear the effects of post-natal crackhead mothering more so than the effects of prenatal nicotine exposure.

    “I need more convincing evidence of harm than that.”

    If you’re actually interested, my advice would be to check out Pubmed sometime. A quick peek shows that there are several hundreds of abstracts from papers examining the effects of maternal smoking on prenatal and postnatal development.

  41. I’m more worried about the fecal bacteria that’s EVERYWHERE!!!!!!!!!

  42. Patrick,

    Jennifer doesn’t seem to understand that there is a difference between relative risk and individual outcomes.

    So she will continue to make the “My mom smoked and I turned out alright, therefore the science is bunk” argument. (in slightly altered form this is the argument I heard everyday when I taught composition in a men’s prison(“I’d done it a hundred times before and never got caught, so it isn’t my fault I am in here. Fucking cops.”)

    The point about the importance of post-natal care having the bigger influence is an important one.

  43. uhhh my mom smoked (not during the pregnancy) and i’m 6’4″ and my sister is 5’9″. and my dad is 5’8″.

    which leads me to wonder how tall the mailman was…

  44. My IQ has tested as low as 135 and as high as 157.
    (135 at age 17, 157 at age 45) but, just like my education, I never let it go to my head.

  45. No, you wouldn’t necessarily have been better off with a crackhead mother, but your risk of adverse health effects due specifically to prenatal exposure would have been lower

    Considering I’ve had no health problems so far, it sounds like if my mom had been a non-smoker my risk of adverse effects would now be a negative number. Or should I panic because, even though I don’t have asthma, I stood a chance of maybe getting it as a kid?

    So she will continue to make the “My mom smoked and I turned out alright, therefore the science is bunk” argument.

    Nope, not saying science is bunk, but I am saying that smoking while pregnant isn’t like taking thalidomide while pregnant–something guaranteed to be dangerous and therefore let’s let government pass all sorts of laws criminalizing it. It’s more like “when I commuted 60 miles to work each day I stood a greater risk of a car accident than I do now commuting only a few blocks to work each day.” Sure the risk was there–yet I never had an accident.

  46. Smoking is a crapshoot – either it’ll kill you, or… it won’t. If the health community directed all the energy it puts into removing the rights of smokers and warning us of vague threats to children instead into finding a way to cure the ills caused by smoking, maybe we’d all be better off. But I guess it’s just easier to pick a villain and beat it to death.

  47. SAM

    Personally, I am allergic to nicotine fumes. I cannot stand to be near anyone who has smoked recently, nor be in a room where people habitually smoke.

    From what I have read it is impossible to be allergic to the smoke from cigs. A person can only be allergic to proteins of which tobacco smoke has none.

  48. “Nope, not saying science is bunk, but I am saying that smoking while pregnant isn’t like taking thalidomide while pregnant–something guaranteed to be dangerous and therefore let’s let government pass all sorts of laws criminalizing it. It’s more like “when I commuted 60 miles to work each day I stood a greater risk of a car accident than I do now commuting only a few blocks to work each day.” Sure the risk was there–yet I never had an accident.”

    Well if that is your argument, then make that argument not repeated reference to your own lack of adverse effects (btw… you can have negative risk in that your positive environment mitigates the impact of negative influence).

    When you use your individual case to argue for/against the conclusion from the general case, you distract from the issues that should be at the heart of policy-making… the relative risk across the population is a much better guide to policy than the individual case.

    Notice in your final line here how you fall back on the same argument.

    BTW. My mom took thalidomide, and I have all may limbs intact. Why do people get so worked up about it coming back on the market?

  49. Everytime my smoker mother-in-law holds my daughter, my daughter spends the next three days coughing. It may be easy for some of you to say don’t have kids, or keep them away from smokers, but some of us already have kids, and we don’t have the option of keeping smokers away from our kids. I used to smoke and there are times I want to french people who are smoking just so I can suck the smoke out of their lungs. I quit cold turkey for my daughter when I found out I was pregnant, And it’s a good thing I did with the reaction she has to smoke.

    You can all say that the science is false, but you are all lieing to yourselves, so that you can feel better about the deadly chemicals you are puting into your bodies.

    I also work at a day care. There is a little girl who gets dropped off and the smoke smell pours in the door before you even see her. She is almost two years old, has huge dark circles under her eyes, and my one year old, who is very small for her age, is only four or five pounds lighter than this other girl.

    All of you are going to think what ever you want, but to be angry at children who deserve a chance at a HEALTHY life is just wrong.

    I don’t care what you do to your bodies, all I care about is the health of my child and others like her who don’t have the ability to say “I don’t like you smoking near me, please air out before you hug me.”

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