Up in (Thirdhand) Smoke – A New Smoking-Related Danger

Many parents and caregivers are aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke and try to avoid smoking in close quarters with children. They might light up only when the kids are in the other room or wait to smoke until they get dropped off at school or sports practice. In years past, that might have been enough, but now physicians and researchers are concerned with a new danger related to smoking: thirdhand smoke.

The International Journal of General Medicine explains thirdhand smoke:

“The term thirdhand smoke first appeared in the medical literature in 2009 when investigators introduced the term to describe residual tobacco smoke contamination that remains after the cigarette is extinguished. Thirdhand smoke is a hazardous exposure resulting from cigarette smoke residue that accumulates in cars, homes and other indoor spaces. Tobacco-derived toxicants can react to form potent cancer-causing compounds. Exposure to thirdhand smoke can occur through the skin, by breathing and by ingestion long after the smoke has cleared from a room.”

A study published in the journal “Tobacco Control” in March reported preliminary findings that support the idea that children are especially at risk for environmental exposure to nicotine, even if adults don’t smoke when kids are around. Higher-than-expected levels of nicotine on the hands of children living in smoking households led researchers to believe these “surface” pollutants increase their overall exposure.

As the general public has become more aware of the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke, tobacco use has fallen in the United States during the past several decades. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking still remains the nation’s leading cause of preventable death.

More than 16 million Americans live with a disease caused by smoking: including cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung disease, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Close to half a million people die in the U.S. every year due to smoking, including more than 41,000 deaths due to secondhand smoke exposure.

While thirdhand smoke may be a relatively new consideration for the general public, researchers have been studying its effects for several years.

Scientists published an article in “Tobacco Control” in 2011 that looked at thirdhand smoke contamination in homes of former smokers. Homes of 100 smokers and 50 non-smokers were visited before occupants moved out to measure nicotine levels in or on dust, surfaces, air and residents’ fingers. After non-smokers moved into homes of former smokers, high finger nicotine levels corresponded to dust and surface nicotine, even after homes were cleaned and remained vacant for up to two months.

The study reported the following findings:

“Research suggests that thirdhand smoke (THS) pollutants in dust, air and on surfaces in homes and cars may persist as long as months after the last known tobacco use occurred. Evidence collected in the field and controlled laboratory studies show that indoor environments in which tobacco is regularly smoked become reservoirs of tobacco smoke pollutants, potentially leading to the involuntary exposure of non-smokers to THS in the absence of concurrent smoking and long after smoking has taken place. Our previous research found that infants of smoking mothers were exposed to tobacco smoke pollutants through THS even though their mothers had strict indoor smoking bans and never smoked near their children.”

A study published in “Pediatrics” in 2010 looked at kids’ smoke exposure in detached houses, attached houses and apartments with the hypothesis that children living in multi-unit housing would have higher levels of nicotine exposure. Authors found that children in non-smoking families living in apartments had an increase in cotinine (a nicotine byproduct) of 45 percent over those living in detached houses, potentially due to smoke seeping through walls and shared ventilation systems.

In addition to the concern of thirdhand smoke exposure for children, veterinarians warn that secondhand and thirdhand smoke could be detrimental to Fluffy and Fido as well. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a consumer update last fall, warning pet owners about the dangers of thirdhand smoke. Because pets spend most of their time on or near the floor, they are exposed to smoke contaminants in household dust, carpets and rugs, which gets transferred to their fur and ingested when they groom themselves.

While the jury is still out on the precise long-term effects of thirdhand smoke, it’s clear that the potential danger to children, adults and pets lingers long after a cigarette is extinguished, even if they aren’t nearby when someone is smoking. That knowledge just might be enough reason to help more smokers quit for good.

Resources are available locally to help. Texas Health Physicians Group physicians can provide the medical guidance you need, and Texas Health Resources offers a smoking cessation information and classes at many of its facilities. For additional resources, you can visit yesquit.org or call the Texas Quit line at 1-877-YES-QUIT to receive counseling, support and information.

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