While many smokers take precautions like only lighting up in an isolated room, on a porch or in the yard, those steps seldom eliminate the dangers that nicotine and other chemicals from burning tobacco pose to infants and children. These range from increased risks for respiratory infections and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome to higher lifetime risks for cancer.
But short of setting up an array of lab sensors in the home, there's no way to tell how much smoke residue is entering a particular space.
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Now, researchers at Dartmouth University report they've come up with a prototype sensor sensitive and compact enough to use just about anywhere.
Smaller and lighter than a cellphone, the prototype -- developed in the lab of chemistry professor Joseph BelBruno -- can fit in the palm of the hand. It uses polymer films to collect, trap and measure nicotine levels in the air. The project was described in the March issue of the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research.
While a patent is pending for the first device, BelBruno expects that a consumer version will eventually be available featuring a computer processor, a rechargeable battery and perhaps a screen to show immediate readouts.
Outside of the home, the devices could be used commercially in places where smoking is banned, such as hotel rooms, rental cars and restaurants.
Secondhand smoke combines smoke from the burning end of a cigarette and the smoke exhaled by tobacco users. Thirdhand smoke is the tobacco residue left behind after smoking that can build up on clothing, walls, curtains, furniture and other surfaces. The residue can return to the air and cause harm long after active smoking has stopped.
There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals. Hundreds of these are toxic and about 70 cause cancer. Nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke face a 20 percent to 30 percent increased risk of developing lung cancer.
Significant exposure to toxic chemicals from secondhand smoke can happen in as little as 10 to 20 minutes.
Simply breathing in a smoky bar or car can constrict a healthy adult's airway in as little as 20 minutes, researchers at the University of Athens in Greece found. They tested subjects in a chamber simulating the exposure to smoke particulates, and reported their findings at the American College of Chest Physicians' annual meeting in October.
Spending just 10 minutes in the back seat of a car with a smoker in front boosts a child's daily exposure to harmful pollutants by up to 30 percent, another study found. The study, published in November by the journal Tobacco, measured pollutant levels in 22 tests inside a stationary vehicle and found levels higher than those found in bars, restaurants and casinos.
Tests were done with front car windows all the way down and partially open. In both cases, pollutant levels were three times as high as those measured outside the car, taking into account both tobacco and vehicle emissions.
The CDC recommends that parents forbid smoking around their children, particularly in the home or car, and avoid restaurants or other indoor spaces that allow smoking.