A new study released in the journal, Rheumatology, reveals there may be a link between autoimmune disease and those exposed to secondhand smoke as children. Several studies have already linked smokers’ habits to higher incidents of autoimmune disease, particularly Rheumatoid Arthritis, but few have sought to establish a link with those who are simply exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke.

What did the study reveal?

The study followed 71,248 French women for 20 years in order to determine the long term effects of secondhand smoke exposure. During the course of the study, 371 women received a diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis, an autoimmune disorder. Women who were exposed to secondhand smoke as children showed a higher risk of developing the disorder. In fact, women who were exposed as children, but had never personally smoked, were still 43 percent more likely to develop RA. Perhaps most surprising was that among those who had not been exposed to secondhand smoke as children, but smoked as adults, the increased likelihood of developing RA was only 38 percent. In summary, the data could suggest that being exposed to secondhand smoke as a child puts one at a higher risk for autoimmunity than being an adult smoker does.

According to lead researcher, Dr. Marie-Christine Boutron-Ruault, further studies are needed to determine if the relationship is stronger in those who already carry genetic predispositions for RA. The study, from the Gustave Roussy Institute in Villejuif, France, explains that secondhand smoke may prevent the immune system from fully developing correctly, especially with existing genetic susceptibility.

Is there anything that can be done to prevent it?

Despite not drawing any concrete conclusions, the study shows us that secondhand tobacco smoke is just as bad as researchers have thought, and perhaps even worse. Across the globe, the trend continues to limit people’s exposure. As a result, hospital admissions due to childhood asthma have decreased in many countries, while others are still slow to implement beneficial public health policies.

As recently as July, a self-reporting study also showed an alarming correlation between secondhand smoke exposure and stillbirths among pregnant women in developing countries. In Indonesia, Armenia, Jordan, Nepal and Bangladesh, more than half of the pregnant women in the study reported exposure to secondhand smoke in their household. In Sierra Leone, Egypt and Pakistan, more than 40% of pregnant women were exposed, contributing to the estimated 17,000 stillbirths in Pakistan annually. Pakistan attributes 1% of its stillbirths to mothers who smoke during pregnancy, and 7% to those who are simply exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke in their homes.

The study cites that secondhand exposure was ten times higher than active smoking among pregnant women, implying secondhand smoke was a much larger factor than smoking. Put simply, researchers continue to agree that exposing pregnant women to secondhand smoke is likely worse, or equally as harmful, as a mother lighting up while pregnant. While more research is needed to pinpoint exactly why this habit creates such a risk, we have enough knowledge now to end this toxic public exposure to innocent lungs.

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