For years, we have been warned of the dangers of first and second hand smoke exposure to our health. Research has led us to create smoking bans in public places, ask our guests kindly to smoke outside and avoid prolonged conversations with active smokers. But can the remnants of the fumes on people's clothes and the permeation of the smoke into furniture and carpeting be just as dangerous?
According to Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, third hand smoke is "tobacco smoke contamination that remains after the cigarette has been extinguished."* These toxins can invade households and clothing for days and even months after the initial exposure to the cigarette.
Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory study showed that the nicotine released when smoking a cigarette turns into a vapor which can adhere easily to indoor surfaces and cause reactions with the common indoor air pollutant, nitrous acid to produce dangerous carcinogens.** Over time, these vapors will have a layering effect on their surroundings. In smaller spaces such as a vehicle, the concentration can be more pronounced. Smokers themselves can carry these toxins on their hair and clothing and unwilling transer them to children they come in contact with, whether it be their own kids or someone else's. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of third-hand smoke, and it is invisible and difficult to prevent.
Young children and babies are most suspectible to the effects of third hand smoke as they tend to crawl along surfaces and put things in their mouths. Even low levels of tobacco toxins have been linked to cognitive deficits among children. A study of rates suggest that tobacco toxin exposure is the leading cause of SIDS. ***
There is an immediate need to reassess what situations we expose our infants and children to. A family member who smokes outside only to return a few minutes later can cause long terms effects on your child. Living in a building where your neighbor is a smoker is equally harmful. Third hand smoke is an invisible threat that we must take seriously.