Third-Hand Smoke May Be the Last Strike for Smokers to Quit

Just when you thought you were safe in avoiding the smoky haze, the effects of third-hand smoke strike. Third-hand smoke is residual tobacco smoke contamination that lingers well after a cigarette is extinguished. These toxic remnants are left behind in the form of invisible gases and particles that continue to cling to the hair and clothing of smokers, as well as to seat cushions and carpeting.

Parents who smoke cannot rid their environment of the dangers by simply opening a window or powering on a fan. Within the third-hand smoke residue, heavy metals, carcinogens, and even radioactive materials can be found. These toxic materials are a silent and invisible hazard for unsuspecting young children who can easily get them on their hands and then consume just by crawling around or playing on the floor. And if you breastfeed, the toxins will transfer to your baby in your breast milk. Low levels of tobacco particulates have been associated with cognitive deficits in children. As one example, the higher the exposure level, the lower their reading scores.

According to the National Toxicology Program, there are 250 poisonous gases, chemicals, and metals found in third-hand smoke. They include hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, butane, ammonia, toluene (found in paint thinners), arsenic, lead, chromium (used to make steel), cadmium (used to make batteries), and polonium-210 (a highly radioactive carcinogen).

Research conducted by doctors from Boston’s Mass General Hospital for Children focused on the risks associated with third-hand smoke for infants and children. The study, published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Pediatrics, was conducted utilizing random-digit-dial telephone surveys from September to November of 2005 in which 1,510 households across the United States participated. The survey questions evaluated the degree in which participants agreed as to whether breathing cigarette smoke is harmful to children’s health and whether breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday could harm children’s health.

Results revealed that 95.4 percent of nonsmokers and 84.1 percent of smokers agree that second-hand smoke is harmful to children. However, only 65.2 percent of nonsmokers and 43.3 percent of smokers agreed that third-hand smoke was harmful to children. It was also determined that stringent rules against smoking in the home were extensively more prevalent among nonsmokers at 88.4 percent, compared with smokers at 26.7 percent.

According to Dr. Jonathan P. Winickoff, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, “Everyone knows that second-hand smoke is bad, but they don’t know about this.” Dr. Winickoff explained that third-hand smoke is the smell that accompanies a smoker entering an elevator after having been outside for a cigarette or the order that permeates a hotel room where people have been smoking. “Your nose isn’t lying,” he said. “The stuff is so toxic that your brain is telling you: ‘Get away.’”

The authors conclude that the study shows how attitudes regarding health effects of third-hand smoke are independently associated with home smoking bans. They also concluded, “Emphasizing that third-hand smoke harms the health of children may be an important element in encouraging home smoking bans.”


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