When the solution to pollution IS dilution: Cigarette smoke and urban crowding

If kids in apartment buildings and townhouses are exposed to more second-hand smoke, as a new study argues, is that an argument for returning to the carbon-footprint-heavy suburbs?

R. Norman Matheny / The Christian Science Monitor / File
This 1997 file photo shows Harlem apartments. A new study in shows that children in crowded living conditions are exposed to second-hand smoke from adjoining apartments or townhouses. Is this an argument for leaving transportation-efficient cities and moving back to the 'burbs?

Kids who live in apartments are exposed to more second hand smoke even if their parents don't smoke. No, this isn't an income effect. Rich people live in apartments in New York City and this offers a decent control group.

The nerds who publish in Pediatrics have a new study. "The study tested for cotinine, a tobacco metabolite used to assess exposure to secondhand smoke, and found that children living in apartments had higher levels of the chemical in their systems than those who lived in detached houses, even though their own units were smoke-free zones. Children living in town houses with shared walls had the same problem, the study found, though to a lesser degree. Average blood levels of cotinine for these children were lower than for children living in apartments but higher than for those living in detached houses."

Now the $64,000 question here is what is the impact on a child's long run development if she is exposed to extra tobacco metabolite? The nerds do not appear to know the answer to this.

But, let's turn to the urban economics here. Land is expensive close to the city center and in desirable parts of a city (such as Santa Monica's beach areas). Where land is expensive, people consume little land by living in multi-family apartments. Far from the city center (sprawl country), people live in single detached homes.

So, here is the irony. Compact cities are good for the environment because your carbon footprint is smaller there. Use consume less land and you use public transit and you consume less electricity. Ed Glaeser and I document this in this Journal of Urban Economics paper.

But, in terms of minimizing your own family's exposure to urban environmental ills --- the suburbs are the place to be! I document this point in this NBER paper. Air pollution and crime (and apparently 2nd hand smoke) all decline in "intensity" with distance from the same center city. So, Greenacres is the place to be. Farm living is the life for me. Don't forget what Eva Gabor has to say. See it here. Keep Manhattan, just give me the country side.


The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. This post originally ran on greeneconomics.blogspot.com.

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