Third hand smoke sticks, stays, – and kills



While most countries in the developed world are smoke-free, Switzerland, the country that is super-clean, super-efficient and super-healthy is still struggling with its anti-smoking legislations. The last time we went to a restaurant, we asked upon reservation by phone if they have a ”non-smoking section” and the answer was “yes.” When we got there, we go a table for 6 at one end of the room, the so-called non-smoking half. The other half was reserved for the smokers. There was no physical barrier whatever between the two halves. We all ended up “smoked” anyway, including my 2 little kids.

So you may ask, what’s the big deal? As long as nobody’s blowing cigarette smoke right in front of your face, it’s OK, right?

No, it’s not.

First of all, second-hand smoke spreads fast in an enclosed room. You can catch it even if you are meters away. Then there’s third hand smoke – residual tobacco smoke contamination that remains after the cigarette is extinguished”.

Have you ever wondered why the smell of cigarette smoking lingers long, long after (days!) the smoker has left the premises? Well, it’s the residues which remain on the furniture, the curtains, the carpet, the upholstery. It even remains on your clothes and your hair – and even on your skin. Third hand smoke sticks and stays. And it is deadly.

It is not nicotine that presents the most threat in third hand smoke. At least 69 carcinogens have been identified in cigarette smoke. Some of these are the so-called nitrosamines or TSNAs. TSNAs are not present in freshly produced cigarette smoke. However, the smoke residue reacts with nitrous acid, a common indoor air pollutant, to produce the deadly TSNAs.

According to researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

“The burning of tobacco releases nicotine in the form of a vapor that adsorbs strongly onto indoor surfaces, such as walls, floors, carpeting, drapes and furniture. Nicotine can persist on those materials for days, weeks and even months. Our study shows that when this residual nicotine reacts with ambient nitrous acid it forms carcinogenic tobacco-specific nitrosamines or TSNAs. TSNAs are among the most broadly acting and potent carcinogens present in unburned tobacco and tobacco smoke.”

Nitrous acid is emitted by unvented gas appliances and vehicle engines. The researchers tested for TSNA before and after exposure to cigarette smoke. In one tests, they detected TSNA concentrations which were 10 times higher after exposure. In another test, they detected substantial amounts of TSNAs in a truck of a heavy smoker driver. There are several types of TSNAs. During the test, the researchers found three TSNAs, the NNA, the NNN, and the NNK, which are all potent carcinogens.

“Breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.”

According to lead author Mohamad Sleiman

Time-course measurements revealed fast TSNA formation, up to 0.4 percent conversion of nicotine within the first hour… Given the rapid sorption and persistence of high levels of nicotine on indoor surfaces, including clothing and human skin, our findings indicate that third-hand smoke represents an unappreciated health hazard through dermal exposure, dust inhalation and ingestion.”

What about smoking outdoors? Most restaurants here in Switzerland simply declare the terrace or the patio as their smoking lounge. Does not help? Well, the researchers say it does, but not much. The residues will still stick to your clothes and your body anyway and you will carry them with you when you go inside.

What about ventilators and windows? They also help only minimally. The residues will still stick and stay, no matter what.

What about e-cigs? The researchers believe that they too are not completely harmless. They also produce residues that can be hazardous.

Those of you smokers who have kids, can you imagine the danger you are putting your children in, each time you hold them in your arms? The carcinogens are in your clothes, on your very skin! According to one of the authors:

“Those residues follow a smoker back inside and get spread everywhere. The biggest risk is to young children. Dermal uptake of the nicotine through a child’s skin is likely to occur when the smoker returns and if nitrous acid is in the air, which it usually is, then TSNAs will be formed.”

A 2009 study revealed that people are not really convinced that third-hand smoke is dangerous. In a survey about the statement:

“Breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.”

…only 65% of non-smokers and 43% of smokers agree.

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.
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