Branden E. Yee, M.D., and his research group from the anesthesiology department at Tufts Medical Center studies 200 children between the ages of 1 and 12 to assess their levels of carboxyhemoglobin, which is formed when carbon monoxide binds to the blood.
Carbon monoxide binds to blood 200 times more easily than oxygen, but the resultant carboxyhemoglobin is unable to deliver oxygen to body tissue, including that of the brain, heart and muscle.
The exact ramifications of high levels of carboxyhemoglobin are not entirely known, but potential consequences of long-term, low level exposure include changes in heart and lung tissue.
Although household and environmental factors such as stoves, heaters and automobiles are potential sources of carbon monoxide exposure, the most likely source of elevated carboxyhemoglobin overall is second-hand cigarette smoke.
And according to Dr. Yee's study, the younger the child, the greater the potential level of exposure.
"The physiology of children, especially the youngest, is different from that of adults," said Dr. Yee. "Children breathe in a greater amount of air per body weight compared to adults."
Another possible explanation for the youngest children having the highest levels of carboxyhemoglobin is that they are completely reliant on their parents and are thus exposed to everything their parents are, including air pollution, cooking exhaust and, of course, second-hand smoke, Dr. Yee said.
Dr. Yee stressed the importance of education in helping to change parents' smoking habits, especially around children. He thinks that the right blend of physician intervention and technology could have positive benefits.
"The simple, non-invasive device we used to test exposure may encourage health care providers to ask further questions of children and their parents regarding smoking habits," said Dr. Yee. "Personalized education coupled with the act of physically showing a parent the carboxyhemoglobin measurement in his or her child's blood may provide a graphic and concrete message to that parent."
Anesthesiologists: Physicians providing the lifeline of modern medicine. Founded in 1905, the American Society of Anesthesiologists is an educational, research and scientific association with 43,000 members organized to raise and maintain the standards of the medical practice of anesthesiology and improve the care of the patient.