Environmental tobacco smoke exposure and pulmonary function among adults in NHANES III: impact on the general population and adults with current asthma

Environ Health Perspect. 2002 Aug;110(8):765-70. doi: 10.1289/ehp.02110765.


The impact of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) exposure on adult pulmonary function has not been clearly determined. Because adults with asthma have chronic airway inflammation, they may be a particularly susceptible group. Using data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), I examined the cross-sectional relationship between serum cotinine, a biomarker of ETS exposure, and pulmonary function among 10,581 adult nonsmokers and 440 nonsmoking adults with asthma whose cotinine and spirometry data were available. I generated residuals, which are observed minus predicted values (based on Crapo equations), for forced expiratory volume in 1 sec (FEV1), forced vital capacity (FVC), and FEV1/FVC ratio to adjust for age, sex, and height. In addition, I used multivariate linear regression to control for sociodemographic characteristics and previous smoking history. Most adults with and without asthma had detectable serum cotinine levels, indicating recent ETS exposure (85.7% and 83.4%, respectively). Among nonsmoking male participants, I found no evidence that ETS exposure was related to decreased pulmonary function. In the nonsmoking female stratum, the highest cotinine tertile was associated with a lower FEV1 [-100 mL; 95% confidence interval (CI), -143 to -56 mL], FVC (-119 mL; 95% CI, -168 to -69 mL), and FEV1/FVC ratio (-1.77%; 95% CI, -2.18% to -1.36%). Among women with asthma, the highest cotinine tertile was also associated with decreased FEV1 (-261 mL; 95% CI, -492 to -30 mL), FVC (-291 mL; 95% CI, -601 to 20 mL), and FEV1/FVC ratio (-1.6%; 95% CI, -3.3% to 0.19%). In conclusion, ETS exposure is associated with decreased pulmonary function in adult females, especially those with asthma. This analysis should provide further impetus for public policies that promote smoke-free environments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Asthma / physiopathology*
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Cotinine / blood
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lung Diseases / etiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Regression Analysis
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Sex Factors
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / adverse effects*


  • Biomarkers
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution
  • Cotinine