Childhood exposure to tobacco smoke raises risk of emphysema

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Scientists have long thought that people who quit smoking recover some of their lung function and health. That may be true, but it appears children exposed to secondhand smoke are not so lucky.

Researchers report today that children exposed regularly to tobacco smoke at home were more likely to develop emphysema in adulthood, suggesting that lungs may not heal completely from early-life exposure. Scientists at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health studied CT scans of 1,781 nonsmoking adults. The participants were asked about their exposure to tobacco smoke in childhood. The CT scans showed that participants with more childhood tobacco smoke exposure had more emphysema-like lung changes.


Emphysema is the destruction of alveolar walls, the place where oxygen is exchanged with carbon dioxide. This damage reduces the elastic function of the lungs. It could be that emphysema is among the most sensitive measure of lung damage, the authors said.

‘Some known harmful effects of tobacco smoke are short term, and this new research suggests that effects of tobacco smoke on the lungs may also persist for decades,’ the lead author of the paper, Gina Lovasi, said in a news release.

The study is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

-- Shari Roan

Image credit: Matt Harrington / Tribune Media Services