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Everything you need to know about third-hand smoke

We know that smoking is harmful to our health. We also know that secondhand smoke is just as bad. But have you ever heard of third-hand smoke? You may be affected by it and not even know it.

We asked Tammy Taylor, DO, a pediatrician with the Pediatric Group in Troy, to help explain exactly what third-hand smoke is, why it’s dangerous, and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.

What is third-hand smoke?

“Third-hand smoke is a term used to describe exposure to cigarette smoke in a house, car, on clothing, on hair or other objects that lingers after someone has smoked, even days later,” said Dr. Taylor.

Why is it so dangerous?

A new study released this month by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that third-hand smoke might be even more dangerous than second-hand smoke. Although it contains less chemicals or tobacco by-products than second-hand smoke, the few that third-hand smoke does contain often react with common household air pollutants such as ozone and nitrous acid. The resulting particles are not only incredibly damaging to cells, but are also so tiny, they can enter the human body with minimal difficulty by being ingested, inhaled or literally passed through human tissue, including the skin.

“Third-hand smoke leaves behind gases and residue that contain chemicals such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, butane, arsenic and even radioactive substances such as polonium-210,” explained Dr. Taylor. “Many of these substances and more are carcinogenic, meaning cancer causing.”

Another reason that third-hand smoke is so dangerous is that it is nearly impossible to eliminate. According to the Berkeley study, most smokers try to get rid of the cigarette smell by opening windows, vacuuming, dusting, washing linens and spraying tons of air freshener. Unfortunately, getting rid of the smell doesn’t mean the threat is gone. None of the aforementioned methods of “cleaning” do much to truly eliminate the nicotine residue that, according to scientists, can last as long as two months after the last smoke.

“Tobacco-specific nitrosamines, some of the chemical compounds in third-hand smoke, are among the most potent carcinogens there are. They stay on surfaces, and when those surfaces are clothing or carpets, the danger to children is especially serious,” study researcher, Lara Gundel, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said in a statement.

Dr. Taylor agrees. “Risks of exposure (to third-hand smoke) to infants and children include respiratory problems, such as asthma or wheezing, and increased upper respiratory infections and ear infections. Many things can trigger asthma or wheezing, such as weather change, allergies, colds, but the one thing that parents can control that can trigger this, is exposure to second-hand or third-hand smoke.”

What can you do to protect yourself and your family from third-hand smoke?

The Berkeley study found that the intensity of the third-hand smoke doesn’t matter as much as how often you’re exposed to it — the harm it can cause gets worse over time. So, if you’ve moved into a home that was occupied by a smoker, doing things like replacing carpet and repainting walls as quickly as possible is key.

“We advise our patients’ family members who smoke and are unable to stop, to smoke outside away from the kids, and to wear a ‘smoking jacket or shirt,’ that can then be removed before coming back in, to have long hair pulled back, and to wash their hands when they are finished,” said Dr. Taylor. “This all can help to cut down on the gases and particles in the cigarette smoke that cling to the person after smoking.”

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