Study: ‘Third-hand’ smoke a health risk

A study headed up by a Harvard professor reports that smoke particles lingering on furniture, carpet, and hair can be toxic to children.


According to a New York Times article, the harmful effects of cigarettes don’t disappear when the smoke clears. Instead, particles from tobacco sink into carpet, cling to curtains, and permeate your hair, creating a blanket of toxic particles that pose a serious risk to children.

According to a medical study, an invisible, toxic concoction of gases and particles clings to a smoker’s hair and clothing, to room surfaces, and in HVAC/R systems--long after second-hand smoke has dissipated. This residue includes heavy metals, carcinogens, and radioactive materials that young children can get on their hands and ingest, especially if they’re crawling or playing on the floor.

The study, authored by doctors from MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston, coins the term “third-hand smoke” to describe these chemicals. The study was published in this month’s issue of the Pediatrics medical journal.

Dr. Jonathan P. Winickoff, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, said that parents often take measures to protect their kids from smoke’s harmful effects (i.e. turning on a fan or opening a window). However, more needs to be done to adequately safeguard the little ones.

. We needed a term to describe these tobacco toxins that aren’t visible.” 

Winickoff added that people often are already aware of third-hand smoke’s presence—a whiff of smoke on a smoker’s clothes when they return from a smoke break, or the odor lingering in a hotel room recently occupied by a smoker. “Your nose isn’t lying,” he said. “The stuff is so toxic that your brain is telling you:‘Get away.’”

The study reported on awareness of and attitudes about smoking in 1,500 American households. The majority of smokers and nonsmokers polled were aware that second-hand smoke is harmful to children. About 95% of nonsmokers and 84% of smokers agreed that “inhaling smoke from a parent’s cigarette can harm the health of infants and children.”

But far fewer indicated awareness of third-hand smoke’s risks. Researchers asked respondents if they agreed with the statement that “breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.” Only 65% of nonsmokers and 43% of smokers agreed with that statement, which researchers interpreted as acknowledgement of the risks of third-hand smoke.

“We’re onto an important new health message here,” Winickoff said. “What we heard in focus group after focus group was,‘I turn on the fan and the smoke disappears.’ It made us realize how many people think about second-hand smoke—they’re telling us they know it’s bad but they’ve figured out a way to do it.” 

According to the doctors, parents who smoke often take measures to protect their children from second-hand smoke, such as cracking a window, turning on a fan, or limiting their smoking to outdoors. However, researchers indicate, the best way to safeguard children is to not smoke, period.

Researchers collected the data in a national 2005 telephone survey.

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