Third-hand smoke emerging as a new threat, particularly to children

Dr. Chantal Walker, left, talks with Pat Bankston, of Indiana University Northwest.

If you still need a reason to stop smoking, try this one: third-hand smoke, particularly if you have children.

Since the surgeon general exploded the myth that smoking was good for you, it has been linked to a plethora of potentially fatal health problems, including cancer, heart disease and respiratory issues.

Then came the discovery that secondhand smoke, the clouds blown into the air by smokers, can be lethal to nonsmokers who are exposed to cigarettes' more than 250 toxic chemicals, including arsenic and lead. This is why smoking has been banned in most public areas.

But a new threat is emerging: third-hand smoke, the residue left on surfaces and in fabrics long after the cigarette is out. Medical science has only begun to look at it, but the results show that the only way to avoid the risks for yourself and your family is to not smoke.

"If you work in a bar where smoking is allowed, you come home and the chemicals are in your clothes and there is the smell of it," said Dr. Chantal Walker, pediatrician with Community Healthcare System. "In the homes of smokers, the yellow tinge in the curtains and residue on other surfaces, someone touching that, like a baby crawling on the floor, they put their hands to their mouth and ingest it.”

Walker said it's too soon to know whether the residue of nicotine and other other chemicals can cause cancer, particularly in children 6 and younger. But the studies do show third-hand smoke can exacerbate asthma, sinus problems and allergy issues.

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Dr. Rewa Hasanat, a family physician with UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial, said third-hand smoke can damage DNA and cause mutations, and the chemicals in the residue react with the gases in the air and create more harmful chemicals. For instance, nitrosamine is produced, and becomes even more toxic as it ages and produces more chemicals.

“Studies found (third-hand smoke) harmed livers and lungs and impaired wound healing," she said. "With continued research, we are seeing more of these results. The smoke doesn’t dissolve in the atmosphere. It just reacts with the pollutants in the air to form something more harmful."

Cotinine, another byproduct of nicotine that can be detected in the blood and urine, is showing up in children at much higher levels on their hands than those of nonsmoking adults.

Walker recommends that those who can’t quit smoking frequently launder clothes, clean drapes and rugs, and wipe down all surfaces in the house and car to reduce the risk to children.

“Everyday cleaning products are not enough to get rid of it,” Hasanat said. “Everybody’s body has a threshold of tolerance, but the soot and smoke can remain on surfaces for a few months or a few years. Studies at a train station showed it is still on the surfaces dating back to before smoking was banned in the building.”

Opening a window or turning on a fan spreads the problem into the insulation and the house ducts. Parents who do smoke should do so outside and wear a jacket or something they can remove when they come in the house, Hasanat said.

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