You Can't See Third-Hand Smoke, But That Doesn't Mean It Isn't Harmful

Brilliance | Dec. 15, 2017

If secondhand smoke is the hazardous-to-your-health cloud that surrounds your smoker friends, then what is third-hand smoke? Basically, it's proof that even after the cigarette has been stubbed out, those toxins hang around. They can build up in carpets, on walls, even on clothes—and breathing them in can cause problems, especially for kids.

Deadly Residue

When you smoke, you exhale toxins into the air, and even after you put your cigarette out, they don't just disappear. Instead, they seep into the walls, settle on nearby surfaces, and insinuate themselves into the carpet. In a small space such as a car, it can grow to be quite a heavy buildup, but even large rooms where a lot of smoking occurs will develop the residue in short order. And what, exactly, is in that residue? According to Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UC San Francisco, "The level of toxicity in cigarette smoke is just astronomical when compared to other environmental toxins." Pediatrician Jonathan Winickoff gets more specific, counting lead, arsenic, and cyanide among 250 other contaminants.

Children At Risk

Unfortunately, it's kids and infants especially who are most at risk from these ambient toxins. Not only do they inhale twice as much dust and residue as adults, but their smaller body masses make them more susceptible to the effects of third-hand smoke. If a baby weighs one tenth of an adult, but inhales twice as much dust, she is effectively getting 20 times the exposure. According to Winickoff again, third-hand smoke could be the culprit behind one of the most notorious threats to an infant's well-being. "Studies in rats suggest that tobacco toxin exposure is the leading cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). We think it is [caused by] respiratory suppression."

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