SDSU Researchers Examine Simple Way to Test for Tobacco Smoke and E-Cigarette Vapor Exposure in Children

Second and thirdhand tobacco smoke exposure is harmful for children. Measuring exposure can be challenging, especially in young children, since established methods use biological samples. A new study by San Diego State University (SDSU) researchers reports on a simple way of detecting differences in tobacco product exposure using silicone wristbands.

September 30, 2020

By: Katherine Greiner

It is well known that the chemicals in secondhand and thirdhand smoke and e-cigarette vapors are harmful to children. However, measuring exposure to second and thirdhand smoke can be difficult, especially in young children. Markers for tobacco product exposure include nicotine, cotinine, and tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNA), which are toxic chemicals and carcinogens found in tobacco smoke.  These chemicals can be accurately measured in urine and saliva, but it can be difficult to collect these samples from children, and the samples themselves need careful handling.

A group of tobacco smoke researchers led by Dr. Penelope Quintana from the San Diego State University School of Public Health examined a possible solution to the problem of sample collection: simple silicone wristbands, which kids already wear for fun. Their study entitled “Nicotine, Cotinine, and Tobacco-Specific Nitrosamines Measured in Children’s Silicone Wristbands in Relation to Secondhand Smoke and E-cigarette Vapor Exposure” was accepted for publication by the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research July 28 and will be published in the coming weeks. Dr. Quintana explains “In this study, we wanted to investigate whether or not we would be able to detect differences in children exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke, e-cigarette vapor, and unexposed children just from measuring the chemicals in the silicone wristbands”. There were 53 children in the study who were between 3 and 14 years of age. Over the course of one week, the children wore silicone wristbands and portable air monitors, and provided urine samples to verify levels of exposure. The researchers worked with three groups of children: those who were exposed to secondhand and thirdhand tobacco smoke at home; those who were exposed to secondhand and thirdhand electronic cigarette vapors at home; and those who lived with strict nonsmokers and were not exposed at home.

Nicotine was found in 100% of the wristbands.  Dr. Quintana said, “When we compared the levels of tobacco smoke chemicals in the wristbands in the three groups of children, we found that the highest levels were in the wristbands worn by children exposed to tobacco smoke at home. In that group, higher levels were found in wristbands worn by children living in homes where adults smoked inside compared to homes where they smoked outside. We also detected tobacco-specific carcinogenic chemicals in the wristbands for the first time.”

Wristbands worn by children exposed to electronic cigarette vapors had lower levels of tobacco smoke chemicals than those in the tobacco smoke group, however the levels for e-cigarette exposure were still higher than those that were not exposed at home. Wristbands worn by the group of children who lived with nonsmokers had the lowest levels of the three groups.

Even though electronic cigarette vapor may not smell like cigarette smoke, the vapor releases nicotine and exposes children to much higher levels of toxic chemicals than are found in homes without tobacco or electronic cigarette use. 

This study demonstrates that simple silicone wristbands can be used to distinguish differences in exposure and paves the way for a more straightforward method of measuring children’s exposure and has exciting implications for tobacco control efforts. Dr. Quintana adds that “simple ways of measuring exposure will create additional tools for parents who are concerned about their children’s exposure to second and thirdhand smoke. Our research team thanks the participants in this study who spent the time to help us find new tobacco control tools.”

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