BACKGROUND: Previous studies of the effects of passive exposure to smoke on spirometric indices in children have largely relied on questionnaire measures of exposure. This may have resulted in underestimation of the true effect of passive smoking. Biochemical measures offer the opportunity to estimate recent exposure directly. METHODS: The relation between spirometric indices and passive exposure to tobacco smoke was examined in a large population sample of 5-7 year old children from 10 towns in England and Wales. The effects of passive exposure to smoke on lung function were assessed by means of both salivary cotinine concentration and questionnaire measurements of exposure. Analyses of the relation between spirometric values and cotinine concentrations were based on 2511 children and of the relation between spirometric values and questionnaire measures on 2000 children. RESULTS: Cotinine concentration was negatively associated with all spirometric indices after adjustment for confounding variables, which included age, sex, body size, and social class. The strongest association was with mid expiratory flow rate (FEF50), the fall between the bottom and top fifths of the cotinine distribution being 6%, equivalent to a reduction of 14.3 (95% confidence limits (CL) 8.6, 20.0) ml/s per ng/ml cotinine. Salivary cotinine concentrations were strongly related to exposure to cigarette smoke at home but 88% of children who were from non-smoking households and not looked after by a smoker had detectable cotinine concentrations, 5% being in the top two fifths of the cotinine distribution. A composite questionnaire score based on the number of regular sources of exposure was as strongly related to mid and end expiratory flow rates as the single cotinine measure. The fall in FEF50 per smoker to whom the child was exposed was 51.0 (26.5, 75.5) ml/s. The relationships between the questionnaire score and forced vital capacity (FVC) or forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) were not statistically significant. CONCLUSIONS: These effects of passive smoking on respiratory function are consistent with the results of previous studies and, although small in absolute magnitude, may be important if the effects of exposure are cumulative. In children aged 5-7 years the use of a single salivary cotinine concentration as a marker of passive exposure to smoke resulted in clear relationships between exposure and FVC and FEV1, whereas the associations were much weaker and not significant when based on the questionnaire score. The associations between exposure and mid or end expiratory flow rates were of similar magnitude for cotinine concentration and the questionnaire score. The use of salivary cotinine concentration in longitudinal studies may help to determine the extent to which these effects are cumulative or reversible.
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