If These Walls Could Cough

Most people know that smoking and breathing secondhand smoke is toxic, but many have not heard about thirdhand smoke. Thirdhand smoke is the residue from tobacco smoke that collects on surfaces and becomes a source for long-term exposure to harmful pollutants.

The risks of tobacco exposure do not end when a cigarette is put out.  Smokers expose themselves to a mixture of over 7,000 chemicals. Hundreds of these chemicals are toxic, and nearly 70 cause cancer.  Even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can be harmful to health.1 Thirdhand smoke doesn’t blow away; it actually sticks to walls, windows, and furniture, or settles as toxic dust in homes and cars.  It even sticks to clothing and hair, and residue builds up in the environment becoming more toxic over time.2

Exposure to thirdhand smoke damages genetic material (DNA), and increases the risk for short- and long-term health problems including asthma and cancer.

Thirdhand smoke is caused by the burning of tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars, and hookah. It is also possible for e-cigarette aerosol and smokeless tobacco to contaminate surfaces.3 4 5 Removing thirdhand smoke is difficult, depending on the type of surface and the amount of thirdhand smoke that has settled there. Common cleaning methods such as vacuuming, wiping surfaces, and airing out rooms are not effective in removing thirdhand smoke.2

Tobacco smoke can even contaminate areas considered to be smoke-free. For example, in hotels or apartment complexes, smoke particles can travel through cracks in the building or air ducts from a smoking area to a non-smoking area. People can be exposed to thirdhand smoke without knowing it, because over time the smell may go away, but harmful chemicals still exist.2

Anyone who spends time in a place where smoking, vaping, or other tobacco use has occurred can be exposed to thirdhand smoke, but infants and children are particularly at risk. Thirdhand smoke can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. It is possible for infants and toddlers to swallow thirdhand smoke when teething or playing with contaminated objects.2 Exposure to thirdhand smoke damages genetic material (DNA), and increases the risk for short- and long-term health problems including asthma and cancer.6

Due to widespread success in eliminating smoking in workplaces and other public places, exposure to thirdhand smoke has decreased. However, thirdhand smoke may still persist in private spaces such as homes, cars, and other areas which are not protected by tobacco-free regulations. Protect yourself and your family from thirdhand smoke. Do not allow smoking, chewing tobacco, or e-cigarette use in your home or car. The best way to protect against thirdhand smoke is to keep the places that we live, work, and play completely tobacco-free.

  • References

    1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Secondhand smoke (SHS) facts http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/secondhand_smoke/general_facts/index.htm
    2. Matt, G., Quintana, P., Destaillats, H., Gundel, L., Sleiman, M., Singer, B., . . . Hovell, M. (2011). Thirdhand tobacco smoke: emerging evidence and arguments for a multi-disciplinary research agenda. Environmental Health Perspectives 119(9), 1218-26
    3. Kassem, N., Daffa, R., Liles, S., Jackson, S., Kassem, N., Younis, M., . . . Hovell, M. (2014). Children’s exposure to secondhand and thirdhand smoke carcinogens and toxicants in homes of hookah smokers. Nicotine & Tobacco Research 16(7), 961-975
    4. Goniewicz, M., Lee, L. (2014). Electronic cigarettes are a source of thirdhand exposure to nicotine. Nicotine & Tobacco Research 17(2), 256-8
    5. Whitehead, T., Metayer, C., Park, J., Does, M., Buffler, P., Rappaport, S. (2013). Levels of nicotine dust from homes of smokeless tobacco users. Nicotine & Tobacco Research 15(12), 2045-2052
    6. Hang, B., Sarker, A., Havel, C., Saha, S., Hazra, T., . . . Gundel, L. (2013). Thirdhand smoke causes DNA damage in human cells. Mutagenesis 28(4), 381-391

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