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Dr. Nancy Snyderman Q & A: Third-Hand Smoke

Dr. Nancy Snyderman Q & A: Third-Hand Smoke

Kids ENT Month – February 2009

AAO-HNS Member Expert Q & A – Dangers of Third-Hand Smoke

A Q & A with Nancy Snyderman, MD, NBC News Chief Medical Editor and AAO-HNS member about new findings on the dangers of childhood exposure to cigarette smoke.

Q. What is “third-hand smoke”?

A. The term “third-hand smoke” is a relatively new phrase that describes the chemical contaminants from cigarette smoke that remain in the air and on surfaces even after the cigarette is extinguished.  These chemicals linger for a long period of time and can be reabsorbed into the body if inhaled or ingested.

A recent study in the medical journal Pediatrics found that of adults surveyed, the risks of third-hand smoke are less well known. Since the term is so new, the researchers asked people if they agreed with the statement that “breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.” Only 65 percent of nonsmokers and 43 percent of smokers agreed with that statement.

Q. What is the difference between “third-hand smoke” and other terms like “secondhand smoke”?

A. There are essentially three different types of dangers that are produced from the smoke of a cigarette.

The first, and most obvious, is the smoke that smokers inhale into their lungs. This smoke contains the highest levels of cancer-causing toxins, but it can also cause other health issues like deterioration of the gums and teeth, or decreasing your sense of smell and taste, among many others. This smoke is extremely dangerous to the individual who is smoking and dangerous to others once the smoker exhales it.

Secondhand smoke is a combination of the smoke from a burning cigarette and the smoke exhaled by a smoker. Also known as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), it can be recognized easily by its distinctive odor. Over 4,000 different chemicals have been identified in ETS, and at least 43 of these chemicals can cause cancer.

Read more about the dangers of secondhand smoke

Finally, “third-hand smoke” describes the remaining smoke particles that are deposited onto surrounding surfaces like clothing, furniture, and carpeting. Research has shown that this type of residue is particularly harmful to children, because they are often crawling on, playing with, or touching contaminated surfaces.

Q. If I smoke outside, is it still dangerous to my child?

A. Yes. Even if direct or secondhand smoke isn’t reaching the child, the third-hand smoke can be trapped in the fibers of your clothing or in your hair. If you pick up your child or he/she hugs you, the smoke particles can be reabsorbed into your child’s body. The particles can remain for a long time, so even if you smoked a cigarette in the morning and then don’t have contact with your child until the evening, you could still be exposing him/her to dangerous toxins. In fact, one study found that as much as 90 percent of the nicotine in cigarette smoke sticks to nearby surfaces.

For your health and especially for your child’s health, the most important thing is to quit smoking altogether.

Q. What can I do to help protect my family?

A. First, and most importantly, if you do smoke, stop. Consult your physician for help, if needed. There are many new resources available to help you quit from medications to support groups.

You should also consider a home/car smoking ban. Do not allow anyone to smoke anywhere in your home or at any time in your car. Studies have shown that parents who enforce a no-smoking ban at home are less likely to have teens who experiment with cigarettes.

Finally, if you used to allow regular smoking in your home, consider replacing low-cost items like throw pillows, area rugs, and curtains. For items like couches and rugs, consider a thorough steam cleaning which can help reduce the amount of dangerous particles, pollutants, and allergens that are trapped in their fibers.