Third-Hand Smoke is a First-Class Problem
What's lurking in your clothes, hair, carpets, and drapes long after a smoker leaves the room? Third-hand smoke—a film of chemicals and carcinogens.
By Coeli Carr for MSN Health & Fitness
The unpleasant residual odor of a smoked cigarette is nothing new. Ask anyone who's returned from a party with the scent of stale cigarettes in their hair and clothing. Now, a study has confirmed what many have suspected. Third-hand smoke—the contamination from particles in smoke that linger long after a cigarette has been snuffed out—is more than unpleasant. It's a health threat.
In this month's issue of the journal Pediatrics, researchers at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, in Boston, coined the term "third-hand smoke" to describe the toxic particles that remain after visible smoke is gone, and which pose an especially great risk to infants and children who inhale them.
"People react to how bad smoke smells on their hair and clothes, but don't realize they could get sick from the smell," says Angela Stotts, M.D., professor of family medicine at Houston's University of Texas Health Science Center, who is conducing ongoing research on second-hand smoke. "A lot of parents think that if they smoke at home when their children aren't around, their children are safe." Although ventilation will help smoke dissipate, the particles simply embed themselves on furniture, carpets and other surfaces.
Stuart Abramson, M.D., a pediatric immunologist at Texas Children's Hospital, also in Houston, says that cigarette smoke contains about 4,000 chemicals and a sizable number of carcinogens and contaminants, including benzene, butane and hydrogen cyanide.
What can parents who smoke do to protect their children from third-hand smoke?
The best approach, says Abramson, is to use the "precautionary principle," which is to avoid any exposure that has the potential of causing harm. He says parents who smoke should try to quit, or smoke only outside the home. Stotts advises that the car should also be a smoke-free zone.
Greene suggests filling the home with green plants, to freshen the air, and applying fresh coats of low-VOC paint to walls that may be full of residual contaminants.
And that old sofa with years of embedded smoke-related toxins? "Ideally, you should get rid of it," says Stotts. "If that's not possible, you can do a really good job of cleaning it, but scrubbing is no guarantee."
Another nose—preferably that of a non-smoker—may be helpful. "Many people who are chronic smokers have an impaired sense of smell," says Abramson.