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The Family that Smokes Together (Expanded)

Before Dad was a physician, he was a smoker. And, because we lived in his house, we were smokers too.

Throughout my life, people have thought it odd that a doctor could also smoke, but it’s not really so strange because Dad started his habit at 14. Smoking was one of the things people did back then, all the time—at home, at work, at parties. Millions of soldiers received free cigarettes during World War II, and when they returned home from the war, they were hailed as heroes, role models for kids everywhere. And our heroes smoked.

My father was already a veteran of smoking before he ever set foot in med school, and any doctor will tell you that med school is incredibly stressful—it’s not the best environment for quitting anything, except maybe sleep. Plus, he enjoyed it. These were the days before the Surgeon General’s package warnings, the terrifying ads, and the lawsuits. By 1966, when the warnings started appearing on cigarette packaging, he’d already spent half of his time on Earth as a smoker.

As kids, my sister and I waged a failing war against the cigarettes: We begged and pleaded, we pinched our noses and complained about the horrible smell. We hid the packs and the ashtrays. I’ll bet many of you did the same things to your parents. One time I even “loaded” a cigarette, which resulted in a small explosion that angered Dad, not because he was surprised by it but because the cinders nearly burned his shirt. But every time we tried, he proved that his love of smoking was somehow stronger than we were.

Our success—such as it was—was comparable to everyone else who battled smoking at that time. Public policy (most notably, the 1964 Surgeon General’s report, which linked smoking to lung cancer) managed to curb smoking’s stratospheric popularity, but it didn’t result in a massive reduction in the overall quantity of smokers. By the mid-1970s, the anti-smoking movement was highly visible, and the number of smokers fell incrementally.

Dad eventually responded to our protests smoked by switching to a pipe for a year or so. He looked very distinguished, and the pipe smoke smelled better than that of the cigarettes; but it was still smoke that wafted through the halls.

So we grew up with smoke in the house every morning before, during, and after breakfast. Some people wake up to the aroma of eggs or bacon, but we woke to the acrid odor of cigarettes. The other thing I woke up to almost without fail was a lump in the back of my throat—an actual lump of gunk that accumulated there while I slept. Part of my morning routine was to get up and expel a gob of phlegm into the sink. It didn’t end there, either—several times a day I repeated this ritual, right up until bedtime. Every day, for years.

My mother thought it was disgusting, and she told me so. I agreed, but what was I supposed to do about it? “I gotta get it out somehow,” I muttered grimly as I continued to hack away.

Now, you’d think from this description that my house was absolutely hazy with smoke all the time, but it wasn’t. Dad had very long hours throughout the week and when he was away, we didn’t notice any lingering smell.

Something unexpected happened when I left for college. Within a few weeks, my coughing subsided. A few more, and it ended altogether. Honestly, I hadn’t noticed it happening, probably because it was so gradual and because I hadn’t made any conscious changes to my lifestyle. I only noticed it when I woke up on the first full day of my fall break. The lump in my throat was back, which must’ve meant that it had stopped sometime while I was away. My mother heard me and commented again about the horrible noise and what a disgusting habit it was. I told her that no one was more disgusted by it than I, but it was funny because this morning was the first time I’d done it in a long time—there must be something in the house that was making me sick.

It wasn’t long after that I started hearing about the dangers of secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke is the smoke that the other people in the presence of a smoker breathe, the smoke that my father expelled from his lungs after every drag from his cigarettes or puff from his pipe as well as the smoke that rises from these tobacco products as they burn. In short, it’s what my sister and I complained about for roughly 20 years. All the things that can happen to a person as a result of smoking can happen to a nonsmoker too if they’re exposed to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke is a known trigger for people with asthma and can lead to lung cancer, too.

You may not have heard of it, but there’s also a thing called “third hand smoke,” which is the chemical residue left behind on surfaces that we take into our bodies by touching contaminated surfaces, ingest from hand-to-mouth contact (or possibly via our food), or breathe in as dust after the actual smoking stops. These would be the chemicals trapped in curtains, on wallpaper or painted surfaces, or the foul odor you detect in a smoker’s car. Whatever you smell in the car is the particulate residue of various chemicals including carbon monoxide, arsenic, butane, lead, toluene, and hydrogen cyanide. If you’ve spent any time on our website at all, you may already know how dangerous carbon monoxide and lead are. Butane is used in lighter fluid and  fuel for camping stoves, and toluene is found in paint thinner. Anything with a name like “hydrogen cyanide” can’t possibly be good for you; this substance is used in chemical weapons. If that’s not frightening enough, polonium-210 is a radioactive carcinogen (meaning it can cause cancer). And arsenic is, well, arsenic. That’s what you’re taking into your lungs when you’re breathing second- and third hand smoke. And before you say anything about air fresheners, forget it: They’re masking the chemical smell, not removing it; you’re still breathing smoke residue and to it you’ve added other chemicals blended to smell like pine or vanilla.

Despite our efforts, our family was never able to convince Dad to quit, although he did smoke less in his later years—a minor victory that may have actually had more to do with changes in public policy. State and federal government have raised taxes substantially over the last twenty years, and laws now prohibit smoking inside or near entrances to almost all public buildings and many public parks, on planes, or on buses. Smoking is now a very expensive habit, and it’s hard to find anywhere to do it outside of your own personal property. As if to follow their lead, my mother—herself a former smoker—insisted that our father’s was no longer allowed to smoke in the house. In the winter, he was allowed to use the garage. Stubbornly, he persisted through the rain and the snow. After all, it was his life, and he wasn’t going to quit just because someone said he should.

And that’s what I say to you: Sure, it’s your life—you can do what you like with it, but what about your family and your friends? Are their lives yours too? And what about your pets? Does old Rufus have to suffer because you don’t feel like quitting? He might be “man’s best friend” to you, but if he knew what you were doing to him, he might not hold you in the same regard. So, if you're a smoker, why not quit? If not for yourself, then how about for your family? And if you’re not willing, or haven’t been able to break the habit, at least take it outside.

As for my own Dad, well, he finally did stop. It happened after he spent a month on the ventilator after a surgery, a procedure that followed angioplasty and an open-heart bypass. His lungs were really weak. When he finally left the hospital, roughly 20 days later than expected, he realized that he was never going to wake up from the next surgery at all if he kept smoking. All of the surgeries he'd endured might've been avoided had he not smoked or even if he’d quit sooner. Suddenly, smoking seemed to be a lot less enjoyable to him, and so he quit—at age 60—but he’d done too much damage to his body. He was already suffering from emphysema by then and often used an oxygen pump to assist his breathing. Still, I think quitting did allow him to live a longer life, and he got to meet his first grandchild before he passed.


This is an expanded version of a blog post that first appeared on NCHH.org in September 2016.

Stand Up and Be Counted in the Fight Against Lead Poisoning



Lead poisoning—you know, it seems like we should’ve had this problem licked by now.

Every year, we (NCHH and our partners) get out and stomp the figurative pavement, reminding people—parents, teachers, doctors, members of Congress, the President—that lead is still a very real and dangerous problem. And every year, despite our best efforts, more kids are exposed to lead. This year, we heard of a city (Flint, Michigan) that was exposed to dangerous levels of lead in its water.

All of this despite the fact we’ve known lead was poisonous for over 100 years and despite the fact that lead-based paint was banned in the U.S. back in 1978. That's nearly 40 years ago. The banning of lead-based paint in homes was a major victory, but the war rages on: While no new lead-based paint is being manufactured for residential use here in the United States, lead is still being used in other types of paint. Meanwhile, the lead-based paint that exists in older homes continues to disintegrate into poisonous dust. Lead exposure also comes from aging pipes entering homes and schools, from soil, and in consumer products.

According to Dr. David Jacobs, NCHH's Chief Scientist, "Lead is […] one of the best studied toxic substances that we know of. It’s one of the metals that you don’t need in your body; it has no useful biological value whatsoever. It creates a range of effects [including] neurodevelopmental effects for children at an early age, but it also causes cancer, kidney disease, and many other adverse health effects."

Today, there are still over 500,000 children with elevated blood lead levels in the U.S. Untold numbers of adults—possibly in the millions—struggle daily with the lifelong consequences of their own childhood lead exposure: decreased IQ and cognitive function, developmental delays, and behavioral problems. It’s both unfortunate and unacceptable for any child to be harmed by lead exposure, yet it continues to happen every day, regardless of race, creed, color, or social strata, though children of color and those living in low-income housing have been affected most.

Advocacy groups, philanthropic organizations, and federal, state, and local governments have done much to educate the public about lead hazards—a herculean task. NCHH and its allies in this war on lead poisoning have also made great progress over the last 40-plus years. The studies we and our partners have done, the research we’ve provided, the articles we’ve written, and our advocacy efforts have resulted in a significant reduction in the number of Americans with elevated blood lead levels, as well as medical treatment for those affected. We’re proud of our work, and we’re proud of all the others who’ve joined us in the fight.

Now we need for you to join us as well, and we need you today. NCHH and the National Safe and Healthy Housing Coalition have just created a petition entitled “Tell Congress to End Lead Poisoning Now” that outlines a comprehensive strategy to end lead poisoning within five years.

Take a few minutes to check out the petition. Now we want you to sign it. Yes, YOU. And then we want everyone you know to sign it as well, which means that we need you to share it with people you know and ask them to share it too. Sign it, share it, and change the world—just a little.

Some of you have probably already signed the petition. You read the title and said, “I’m IN!” (Thank you!) Maybe you’re in because someone in your family has been exposed to lead. Maybe there’s lead in your house or apartment right now, and you don’t have the money you need to make your home safe once and for all. Or maybe you know someone down the street, one street over, or someone who goes to school with your kids, who’s been touched in some way by lead poisoning. Maybe you know someone who’s sitting in jail, and you think that maybe his or her life would be completely different right now if only they hadn’t been exposed to lead.

But maybe you haven’t gotten around to signing the petition just yet. We know that some of you are thinking, I don’t know anyone with this problem or This isn’t really a problem for me. But it really is. Whether or not we realize it, we’re all affected by lead poisoning:
  • Because families move into older homes every day.
  • Because children attend older schools every day.
  • Because some kid visits his or her grandparents’ home every day.
  • Because water flows through old pipes every single day.
  • And because lead poisoning can lead to learning disabilities, impulse control issues, and violent behavior, we pay tax money to fund educational services, law enforcement efforts and the judicial system to fix lead-related problems after they’ve happened. 
We want to tell Congress to invest more in the system upfront so that problems don’t happen. It’s a sound investment in our collective future: The return on investment for lead poisoning prevention is estimated at no less than $17 for every $1 spent.

As NCHH’s David Jacobs and Amanda Reddy commented in a recent editorial, lead poisoning is preventable, and we know how to prevent it; but our investment has to be more widespread and sustained.

Help us tell Congress that it is time to end childhood lead poisoning. Won’t you help us to reach our goal of 20,000 signatures? Stand up and be counted: Please sign the petition right away and share it with your friends, associates, and family.

Democrats Add Eliminating Lead Poisoning to Party Platform



On July 9, 2016, history was made: A major U.S. political party added the words "we must make it a national priority to eradicate lead poisoning" to its platform. Never in the history of American politics has a major party called for the elimination of lead poisoning explicitly as a portion of its platform.

That finally changed late Saturday night as the Democratic Platform Committee approved Amendment 176 to add the following language to their platform:

"Democrats believe we must make it a national priority to eradicate lead poisoning which disproportionately impacts low-income children and children of color and can lead to lifelong health and educational challenges, as a public health threat. We will prioritize hiring and training workers from affected communities to clean up toxic brownfields and expand clean energy, energy efficiency, and resilient infrastructure."

As a nonpartisan organization, NCHH hopes that all of the political parties will recognize the importance of this provision and add it to their respective platforms. The health, safety, and well-being of America’s children is important to all Americans.

Kudos to platform committee members Mara Keisling and Mary Kay Henry, President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for promoting and offering this amendment. 

Watch a video of the amendment's introduction by Mara Keisling and its subsequent approval here.

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