The concept of third-hand smoke was recently invented by a team of researchers from the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, Massachusetts. The term is used to describe the mix of toxic chemicals that contaminate the surroundings in a location where smoking is commonplace. Included in the 250 toxins found in third-hand smoke are lead, cyanide, and arsenic: all proven to be factors in pediatric health problems such as lower IQ and cancer.
This trail of dangerous substances has been found to linger on clothing, furniture, upholstery, toys, and carpeting long after the smoke has gone away. According to pediatrician Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, it is particularly hazardous to infants and small children. Winickoff is the author of a study on the current parental beliefs regarding the hazards of third-hand smoke, published in the journal Pediatrics (Vol. 123, No. 1).
Risks of Third-Hand Smoke in Children and Infants
Clearly, the toxins found in third-hand smoke can be dangerous for adults and children alike, in large enough quantities. But Dr. Winickoff explains in the Scientific American article, “What is third-hand smoke? Is it hazardous?” by Coco Ballantyne, infants and children are particularly vulnerable for the following reasons:
- Children ingest twice the amount of dust particles as adults
- Infants and children explore objects with their mouths
- Brains in the process of development are more susceptible to even the lowest level of toxins
Children and infants should not be subjected for prolonged periods to hazardous toxins from cigarette smoke, whether they come from the first-, second-, or third-hand varieties. It is already widely known that infants who are exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke have a greater risk of succumbing to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
How to Avoid Third-Hand Smoke – Tobacco
In an interview conducted by National Public Radio (NPR), Dr. Winickoff suggested that whenever a family decides to purchase a used vehicle, they consider whether or not the previous owner was a smoker. Similarly, before renting an apartment or purchasing a condominium, potential buyers should take the existence of third-hand smoke seriously.
If parents are smokers, surfaces of toys and furniture need to be wiped down frequently, and also carpets should be cleaned often. But the ultimate solution would be to stop smoking in confined spaces shared by children, or altogether.
Consider the smoke-free policies in restaurants and other public places that are frequented with the family. Research the list of states with strong smoke-free public air policies, and get involved in supporting politicians who support these laws. This list is small but growing in number, and the studies being done on third-hand smoke may promote the efforts to pass pending legislation.
Public Reactions to Third-Hand Smoke Studies
In his study for Pediatrics, Dr. Winickoff notes that only 65% of non-smokers and 43% of smokers believe that third-hand smoke is dangerous to children. Reaction to the study and to the concept of third-hand smoke has been mixed. Many point out that the cleaning products used to remove third-hand smoke substances from carpeting and toys may be just as harmful as the toxins themselves.
Still others applaud the efforts of Dr. Winickoff and his research team at the Cancer Center and are hopeful that it will prove to be another step in the right direction for protecting the rights of society’s smallest nonsmokers.