Lighting up around kids linked to poor grades

by Kathy Aney
East Oregonian, March 25, 2012

A study on smoking by the Umatilla Morrow Head Start suggests that children who breathe secondhand smoke may miss more Head Start classes than their peers.

The results join a widening body of research. A 2011 Massachusetts General Hospital study also found that children living with smokers miss more days of school than classmates who live in smoke-free households. Respiratory illness most often kept the students home.

This lower attendance can translate into reduced graduation rates.

Head Start surveyed parents from 26 Head Start programs around the state about their smoking habits. The federally funded agency provides education and health and nutrition services to low-income families.

Children ages 3-5 years enrolled in Umatilla Morrow Head Start and who were exposed to secondhand smoke in their home or car had attendance rates of 82 percent. Students in non-smoking environments attended 86 percent of the time. Umatilla Morrow Head Start serves 580 children in seven counties in northeastern Oregon.

“In looking at absenteeism, we found that there is a relationship,” said Cathy Wamsley, executive director of Umatilla Morrow Head Start, Hermiston.

Wamsley said attendance is a good predictor of drop-out rate and low achievement. “You have to go to school to learn,” she said.

Wamsley isn’t just blowing smoke. The link between lower attendance and reduced graduation rates is getting clearer, which spells trouble for children exposed to secondhand smoke.

The Head Start study found that 36 percent of Head Start households in Oregon had at least one smoker. About 18 percent of parents allowed smoking in the house or car. Of the households it served by Umatilla Morrow Head Start, 35 percent include smokers and 8 percent allow smoking in the car.

Janet Jones, educator with the Umatilla County Health Department, would like to see those numbers drop.

“There is no safe level of secondhand smoke,” she said. “Children are especially vulnerable.”

Jones said exposure can trigger asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, ear infections and put babies at risk of sudden infant death syndrome. She lauded Head Start for creating a cessation manual for smoking parents.

“Head Start has been a real champion around this issue,” she said.

Jones said cigarette smoke is an insidious invader that can even creep into apartments of non-smoking neighbors.

“Secondhand smoke will creep through the plumbing,” Jones said. “Little particles you don’t see come through the ventilation.”

The tiny particles may not have any odor, she said.

Bob Clark, a licensed sociologist in Pendleton who teaches smoking cessation classes, said some of his students quit because of their children. Clark urges other parents to follow suit.

“Children exposed to secondhand smoke are inhaling the same dangerous chemicals as smokers,” he said.

He advised smoking parents, if they can’t quit, to smoke outside of house and car and to wash their hands.

The American Legacy Foundation, which financed the study, hopes to target low-income smokers and convince them to quit. The foundation was created in 1998 with tobacco settlement money.

“Their mission is to reduce tobacco rates across the nation,” Wamsley said. “They found there has been a decrease in tobacco use, except for the lower socioeconomic sector.”

Head Start was a good fit, she said, since the agency works with low-income families. It plans an identical survey next year to determine if education efforts have lowered smoking rates among Head Start parents.

Smoking by the numbers

45 million — Number of adult smokers in U.S.

126 million — Number of non-smoking Americans exposed to secondhand smoke

50 — Percent of children who show signs in their blood of secondhand smoke

1 billion — Smokers worldwide

600,000 — Number killed annually worldwide by secondhand smoke

165,000 — Number of children who die each year from lower respiratory infections caused by secondhand smoke

40 — Percent of children exposed to secondhand smoke

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; World Health Organization

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