What is Thirdhand Smoke?

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Chemicals released in cigarette smoke that can stick to clothing walls and ceilings, carpets, draperies and furniture upholstery are referred to as thirdhand smoke.  Thirdhand smoke also includes new chemical products, some yet-to-be identified.   These are formed when components of cigarette smoke react with other constituents in the air and in surfaces on which they are deposited.  Identifying and measuring the various components of this newly-formed “chemical soup” pose a big challenge in addition to understanding their undesirable health effects.

Thirdhand smoke chemicals can be transferred to non-smokers and smokers alike by inhalation, absorption or ingestion.  The harmful health effects of cigarette smoke are thoroughly documented, yet thirdhand smoke is a relatively new issue.  This discussion serves as a brief introduction to thirdhand smoke with references to important web links that provide more details.

Tobacco smoke is composed of numerous types of chemicals with many different effects.   Higher rates of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and most cases of lung cancer are seen in people who smoke cigarettes.  Chemicals inhaled in cigarette smoke that then circulate throughout the body have the potential to cause serious harm to other vital organs.  Even people who do not smoke, but spend time in environments with others who do, often experience severe health problems.  For example exposure to ‘secondhand smoke’ can trigger an asthma attack in asthmatics or make an attack worse.

Keep in mind that, as always, it is the dose of a chemical makes that chemical harmful.   The amount of exposure (and therefore the dose) an individual gets to thirdhand smoke varies a lot and will determine their risk.  A study published in 2011 documented that measurable amounts of nicotine and its byproducts can found on the hands and in the urine of non-smokers who have resided in homes previously occupied by smokers.   It is becoming clearer that some components of cigarette smoke contributing to thirdhand smoke persist long enough to enter the body long after the smoker has left the premises; however, the adverse health effects related to thirdhand smoke still remain to be determined.   As you can see from the resources listed below a growing body of research should help to clarify the potential risk of thirdhand smoke to children and other sensitive populations.

We encourage interested readers to read more about thirdhand smoke in the additional resources provided.  For now, whether or not you are a smoker, it is important to be aware of the potential consequences of both sidestream (or secondhand) smoke and thirdhand smoke.  Washing hands and clothing as soon as possible after exposure is one way to reduce your dose and therefore your risk.

Watch for more about this subject in the future!

Resources for further information:

CDC Fact Sheet on Smoking and Tobacco Use

A Mayo Clinic perspective of “What is thirdhand smoke, and why is it a concern?”

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Environmental Health Perspectives article on thirdhand smoke: “Does the Smoke Ever Really Clear? Thirdhand Smoke Exposure Raises New Concerns”

A Scientific American perspective: “What is third-hand smoke? Is it hazardous?”

Some of the research investigating thirdhand smoke:

American Academy of Pediatrics, “Parental Knowledge of Thirdhand Smoke Dangers Linked to In-home Smoking Bans”

California’s Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program

Extinguishing Thirdhand Smoke