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Even third-hand smoke poses health risks

October 10, 2017 GMT

Yes, there is such a thing as thirdhand smoke and it’s more dangerous than you think.

Thirdhand smoke is residual chemicals that include nicotine left on surfaces by tobacco smokers. We are exposed to these chemicals by touching contaminated surfaces or breathing in the off-gassing from these surfaces. This residue can react with common indoor pollutants to create toxic mixes including cancer-causing compounds, which pose a potential health hazard to the smoker, non-smokers and children.

Thirdhand smoke clings to clothes, furniture, drapes, walls, bedding, carpets, dust, vehicles and other surfaces long after the smoker is gone. The residue from thirdhand smoke builds up on surfaces over time. To remove the residue, hard surfaces, fabrics and upholstery need to be regularly cleaned or laundered. You can’t eliminate thirdhand smoke by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air conditioners, or confining smoking to only certain areas of a building.

Children and non-smoking adults are at risk of tobacco-related health problems when they inhale, swallow or touch substances containing thirdhand smoke. Infants and young children might have increased exposure to thirdhand smoke due to their tendency to mouth objects and touch affected surfaces.

When researchers examined children who arrived in the emergency room with breathing problems associated with second-hand smoke exposure, they found alarming facts. They discovered the average level of nicotine on the children’s hands was more than three times higher than the level of nicotine found on the hands of non-smoking adults who live with smokers. They said nicotine on the skin of a non-smoker is a good proxy to measure exposure to thirdhand smoke.

While thirdhand smoke is a relatively new concept, and researchers are still studying its possible dangers, common sense should tell you there is danger. In the meantime, the only way to protect non-smokers from thirdhand smoke is to create a smoke-free environment.

Thirdhand smoke can linger in an area long after the smoke has cleared. It can take up to five years to clear.

Almost half (46.8 percent) of Black non-smokers in the United States are exposed to smoke or smoke residuals. Tobacco smoke exposure is higher among people with low incomes. Two out of every five non-smokers (43.2 percent) who live below the poverty line were exposed to smoke residuals. This means if you are Black and below the poverty line, you are almost assured you will be exposed to thirdhand smoke.

Thirdhand smoke occurs when non-smokers breathe in other people’s smoke residuals. This includes direct smoke, smoke that is drawn through a cigarette mouthpiece, pipe or cigar and then exhaled into the air by smokers, the smoke that comes directly from burning tobacco and any residual substances left behind after the smoker has left the area. Thirdhand smoke contains the same harmful chemicals as the smoke that smokers inhale. Direct smoke is even more dangerous because it is formed at lower temperatures and gives off even larger amounts of some cancer-causing substances.

Thirdhand smoke also affects non-smokers by causing eye irritation, headaches, nausea and dizziness. Children of parents who smoke are more likely to suffer from pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infections, coughing, wheezing, increased mucus production and asthma. Several studies have also shown a link between smoking parents and SIDS. Children of smoking parents have a greater chance of dying of SIDS.

Thirdhand smoke has been shown, in mice, to damage the liver and lungs, complicate wound healing and cause hyperactivity. Thirdhand smoke can increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Can you develop cancer from smelling smoke odors on clothing or being in a room where people have been smoking? There is no medical research about the cancer-causing effects of tobacco odors, but the medical research shows that the particles that make up second-hand tobacco smoke and thirdhand residuals can attach itself to hair, clothing and other surfaces. Any amount of smoke is dangerous and will cause health problems.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified second-hand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke as a Group A carcinogen. This means it causes cancer in humans. The Group A designation has been used by the EPA for only 15 other pollutants. This list of pollutants includes radon, asbestos and benzene. The EPA has also called environmental tobacco smoke a public health epidemic.

Thirdhand smoke contains over 7,000 chemical compounds. More than 70 of these are known to cause cancer. Some of the toxins or irritants in second-hand smoke include carbon monoxide, nicotine, hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, formaldehyde and sulfur dioxide. Carcinogens in thirdhand smoke include benzene, aromatic amines (especially carcinogens such as 2-naphthylamine and 4-aminobiphenyl), vinyl chloride, arsenic, nitrosamines and cadmium. The greater your exposure to thirdhand smoke, the greater your level of these harmful compounds in your body.

There are three locations where you have to be concerned about exposure to second- or thirdhand smoke — your workplace, who children spend time public places and your home.

Here is what you can do to reduce the health risks of passive smoke:

In Your Home

Making your home smoke-free is the most important thing you can do. All family members will develop health problems related to second-hand smoke if anyone smokes in your house. A smoke-free home protects your family, your guests and even your pets. Don’t let anyone smoke in your home.

Where Children Spend Time

Every organization dealing with children should have a smoking policy that effectively protects children from exposure to thirdhand smoke. This should include day-care providers, preschools, schools and other caregivers for your children.

In the Workplace

The only way to protect workers is to prohibiting smoking indoors, around entrances to buildings and in common recreational areas. The EPA recommends that every company have a smoking policy that effectively protects non-smokers from involuntary thirdhand smoke. Simply separating smokers and non-smokers within the same area, such as a cafeteria and indoor and outdoor recreational areas, may reduce exposure, but non-smokers will still be exposed to recirculated smoke or smoke drifting into non-smoking areas.

Tobacco smoke doesn’t go up in the air and disappear. It settles on everything.

Call the American Cancer Society at (800) 227-2345 for more information on quitting.