Back when I was child, I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night wheezing and gasping for breath. My mother would wrap me in blankets and hustle me into the bathroom, where she'd turn on the hot shower full blast so I could breathe in the steam. After a while, my lungs would open up a bit, and I'd be trundled off to bed again with a deep barking cough. It was just another case of the croup, Mom always said, but for some reason I faced these bouts far more often than my friends and cousins did.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with asthma. I had a grandfather and an uncle with asthma, so the condition ran in the family, everyone said. But at that time, no one thought about the tobacco smoke in my home. My father smoked at home and in the car, so I grew up in a cloud of cigarette smoke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children exposed to secondhand smoke in a car for one hour have breathed in the equivalent of three cigarettes. How many hours did I spend in the car as a child? How many cigarettes did I unwittingly "smoke" as a child? And how did that contribute to the asthma that I continue to deal with every day?
For World Asthma Day next week, the American Lung Association of Washington (ALAW) and the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) have chosen to focus on the dangers to children from secondhand smoke. To raise public awareness and reduce the number of parents who smoke with their children in the car, the organizations have joined with Mister Car Wash to offer discounted car washes to all customers who agree to take the "Smoke-Free Auto Pledge" on Tuesday, May 6. From 7 am to 8 pm, customers taking the pledge at Mister Car Wash, 1022 N. Division, will receive a $4 discount on a full-service wash, normally a $12 value. Event sponsors will be there to distribute "Little Lungs Matter" litter bags containing health information about asthma and secondhand smoke, discount coupons, promotional items and information about the Washington State Quit Line. The Ronald McDonald Care Mobile will hand out litter bags at Logan Elementary on Tuesday; bags and information are also available from the Spokane Allergy & amp; Asthma Clinic and the SRHD's Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program.
"We know that secondhand smoke is a contributing factor to asthma attacks and may cause asthma in very young children with a predisposition," explains Dr. Kim Marie Thorburn, health officer of the SRHD. "Education and prevention around these issues are key public health priorities."
The CDC says secondhand smoke triggers up to one million asthma attacks in children every year. Children who breathe secondhand smoke are more likely to suffer from pneumonia, bronchitis and other lung diseases, have more ear infections and are more likely to develop asthma.
"In addition to being a carcinogen, tobacco smoke is a tremendously powerful respiratory irritant," writes Dr. Robert Wood, director of the pediatric allergy clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in his book, Taming Asthma and Allergy. He has some powerful words for parents who smoke around their children: "The data are most striking in studies of children, in whom passive smoke exposure has been linked to increases in both the incidence and the severity of virtually all respiratory disorders... Studies show that passive smoke exposure even impairs lung growth in children and suggest that some children would never have developed asthma had they not been exposed to cigarette smoke. . . . Although high exposure is most damaging, any contact can be harmful and should be avoided. Child abuse would not be an inappropriate description for such exposure."
While there are many substances that can trigger asthma episodes in children, many researchers have focused lately on indoor air quality. The ALAW believes that tobacco smoke is one of the top preventable sources of lung illness for all children, and especially those who suffer from asthma and other respiratory disorders.
"World Asthma Day is an effort to raise public awareness about the daily risks faced by people living with asthma and environmental triggers, such as secondhand smoke," says Cindy Thompson, eastern region director with the ALAW. "We are spending 90 percent of our time indoors, where environmental triggers can also include indoor air, dust, dust mites, pets, molds and ventilation issues. [We are] especially concerned about the increase of asthma in children that is unmanaged and under-diagnosed."
The ALAW urges smokers to quit -- not only for the sake of their own well-being, but for the health of the children around them. At the very least, indoor environments such as homes and cars should be declared smoke-free.
Publication date: 05/01/03