We’ve all heard of “second hand smoke,” the result as smokers exhale and send carcinogens into the air around them. The harmful effects of second hand smoke are well established. Third hand smoke is less familiar.
The term was coined in 2009 by doctors out of Mass General Hospital for Children, and is used for the lingering gases and particles from tobacco smoke that cling to clothing, hair, skin, carpets, upholstery and even wallpaper.
We’ve all caught the odor of smoke after a smoker exits a confined space… this is a real world example of third hand smoke according to new research.
Science has long known that tobacco smoke is absorbed onto surfaces; until now no one had looked at what might happen when these residual molecules came into contact with common pollutants in the atmosphere.
Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory ran lab tests and found “substantial levels” of toxins on smoke exposed material. Such residue can react with a common indoor pollutant to generate dangerous chemicals known as tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs). This residue can hang around for weeks or even months.
So smokers who may not indulge around their children, or crack the window in the car and smoke with their children in back, are unknowingly exposing them to heavy metals, carcinogens and even radioactive materials long after the smoke from the cigarette has cleared.
According to the researchers, third-hand smoke is an unappreciated health hazard, adding fervor to the anti-smoking movement and the call for bans on smoking in homes, vehicles, hotels and other public places. Young children are especially susceptible because they are breathing in closer proximity to these surfaces, and are not hesitant about licking or sucking on them.
In the tests, contaminated surfaces were exposed to high but reasonable amounts of nitrous acid, a common enough thing in the air that can come from unvented gas appliances as well as most car engines and exhaust.
The exposure increased levels of newly formed TSNAs ten-fold. Traces of TSNAs were also seen on the inner surfaces of a truck that belonged to a heavy smoker.
Researcher Lara Gundel of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, concedes, “Smoking outside is better than smoking indoors but nicotine residues will stick to a smoker’s skin and clothing. Those residues follow a smoker back inside and get spread everywhere. Think about the lingering odor after a smoker comes back inside after a “smoke break”.
Of course smoking advocates are skeptical of the danger. Simon Clark, director of the UK smokers’ lobby group Forest said, “The dose makes the poison and there is no evidence that exposure to such minute levels is harmful. That doesn’t seem to matter, though. The aim, it seems, is to generate alarm in the hope that people will be stopped from smoking or will give up.”
Whatever you believe the new work suggests that making your home and vehicle smoke free is a smart choice, especially if you have small children about.
You can also limit exposure to third hand smoke and its after affects as much as possible – wash your hands, change clothes, brush your teeth after smoking and before holding or feeding babies and young children.