Third-Hand Smoke

By Noy Birger

June 2010

 

Dangers of Third-Hand Smoke

You know that smoking is dangerous for the smoker and for people exposed to second-hand smoke, but did you know that third-hand smoke can also cause serious health problems?

Like smoking, exposure to second-hand smoke has been shown to cause emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer and other long-term diseases. Third-hand smoke refers to the residue from cigarette smoke that remains on just about every surface exposed to that smoke. The smoke residue is particularly good at clinging to hair and fabrics, including clothing, carpets, drapes, and furniture upholstery. The residue reacts with other chemicals and materials in the air, combining to form substances that cause cancer. This toxic mix is then breathed in or absorbed through the skin.

Many public buildings ban indoor smoking, and the majority of people who smoke are aware of the health risks-to them and everyone around them-and therefore confine their smoking to outdoors, away from children and non-smokers. But even after the cigarette has been put out, you can carry dangerous nicotine residue back inside on your hair and clothes and put others at risk of developing cancer.

Health Risks Worse for Children

Children are particularly vulnerable. Like adults, they can absorb the tar and nicotine leftovers through their skin. The effect on children is greater because they are still developing. Also, children are more likely to put their residue-covered hands on their nose or in their mouth. Researchers found that the smoke residue mixes with other things in the environment to create cancer-causing gases known to cause developmental delay in children. Parents should know that if they smoke in the car, their children can absorb the cancer-causing chemicals from the car upholstery, even if the children weren’t inside the car when the parent was smoking

Third-hand smoke is a new health concern.  While we know that the residue combines with the air and other pollutants, like car exhaust fumes, to make a cancer-causing substance, we don’t yet know for certain that it causes cancer in humans and if so, how much exposure is dangerous. Figuring out the answer will be challenging, because most people exposed to third-hand smoke are also exposed to second-hand smoke. We know that non-smokers develop lung cancer, for example, but we usually don’t know if a non-smoker developed cancer because he or she was exposed to third-hand smoke, or for other reasons unrelated to smoking.

Bottom Line On Health Risks

Smokers with children or those who live with non-smokers should never smoke inside the home or in their car, and clothing worn while smoking should be washed as soon as possible. If you smell cigarette smoke in a place or on someone, it means you are being exposed to third-hand smoke. An expert on helping people quit smoking recommends that after quitting, people should thoroughly clean their homes, wash or dry clean clothing, and vacuum their cars to remove the dangerous smoke leftovers. Logically, it would be a good idea to do that even while a person is cutting back on smoking, to reduce their exposure to nicotine and other dangerous chemicals.

References


Kern JA. Thirdhand smoke another danger. Mayo Clinic Quit Smoking Blog. March 24, 2009. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/thirdhand-smoke/MY00591>

Sleiman M, Gundel LA, Pankow JF, Peyton J, Singer BC, Destaillats H. Formation of carcinogens indoors by surface-mediated reactions of nicotine with nitrous acid, leading to potential thirdhand smoke hazards. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. January 6, 2010. <www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0912820107>

Winickoff JP, Friebely J, Tanski SE, Sherrod C, Matt GE, Hovell MF, et. al. Beliefs About the Health Effects of “Thirdhand” Smoke and Home Smoking Bans. Pediatrics. (123.1)74-79

Ballantyne C, What is third-hand smoke? Is it hazardous? Scientific American. January 6, 2009. < http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-is-third-hand-smoke >