What is Third Hand Smoke, and Why is it a Concern?

September 2017 MCHThirdhand smoke is generally considered to be residual nicotine and other chemicals which have been left on a variety of indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke.  This residue is thought to react with common indoor pollutants often creating a toxic mix.  This toxic mix of thirdhand smoke contains some cancer-causing substances, posing a potential health hazard to nonsmokers who are exposed to it, especially children.

Thirdhand smoke will cling to all types of surfaces, including skin, hair, clothing, stuffed animals, Toys, carpets, windows, dust, walls, and curtains. Even once smoking is stopped, thirdhand smoke does not dissipate with time.  The longer that smoking occurs in an area, the more thirdhand smoke residue builds up.

Infants and toddlers face the highest health risk from the thirdhand smoke toxic chemicals.  They are exposed to them when they crawl and put toys, hands, and other thirdhand smoke containing items in their mouth.  They can inhale or swallow these chemicals.  These type of environmental hazards take a higher toll on children because their bodies are in the developmental stage.  Some studies show that chemicals in thirdhand smoke can attach to DNA and gradually result in genetic mutations, uncontrolled cell growth, or cancerous tumors.

Normal cleaning does not eliminate thirdhand smoke.  The residue builds up on surfaces over time and can’t be eliminated by airing out rooms or confining smoking to only certain areas of a home.  Doing this may gradually reduce the smell of smoke, but the carcinogenic chemicals usually remain. Smoke also travels throughout a building’s ventilation system or through cracks in walls, electrical lines, and doors.  It take serious efforts to help get rid of these chemicals that have built up over time.  Steam cleaning carpets, drapes and furniture helps to provide extra assistance with the removal.  New paint should be applied after cleaning walls. Air Ducts may also need cleaning.

The only way to protect nonsmokers from thirdhand smoke is to create a smoke-free environment, whether that’s your private home or vehicle, or in public places, such as hotels and restaurants. A smoker should also remember to wash your hands after every cigarette, especially if in contact with younger children.