The negative health aspects of smoking have been widely chronicled over the past few decades — often focused on direct cigarette smoking’s contributions to heart disease and lung cancer. In more recent years, studies have found similarly harmful effects in second-hand smoke, which is inhaled involuntarily from others smoking in a nearby vicinity.
The effects for both types are devastating: The World Health Organization estimates that tobacco use causes over six million deaths per year, and second-hand smoke accounts for 600 thousand of those deaths.
While much of the public is aware of the negative health effects of first-hand and second-hand smoke, ambiguity surrounds third-hand smoke, a term defined by the Mayo Clinic as “residual nicotine and other chemicals left on a variety of indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke.” This residue can react with indoor pollutants to create a toxic breathing environment that potentially causes the same debilitating health effects as first- and second-hand smoke.
Third-Hand Smoke’s Negative Effects
Much like first- and second-hand smoke, third-hand smoke contains substances that can cause cancer. Even more dangerously, the smoke tends to cling onto clothes, hair, bedding, drapes, skin and most substances around the house.
Third-hand smoke poses a risk to children living in the same residence, as merely touching the residue can result in serious illness for young or weakened immune systems.
How Third-Hand Smoke Builds Up
While third-hand smoke isn’t easy to spot with the naked eye, it lingers in the homes of all smokers. The smoke builds up on surfaces over time, unaffected by airing out rooms or using fans.
In reality, the only way to completely prevent an area from becoming a habitat for third-hand smoke is to make it a smoke-free zone. If that’s too late, a thorough cleaning — cleaning the ventilation system, replacing the carpets and scrubbing thoroughly with detergents — is the best route for prevention.
Furniture surfaces, carpeting, drywall and paneling are just a few common household places that can serve as a home to third-hand smoke. Scientists agree this presents a dangerous prospect. “Third-hand smoke is harmful to our genetic material and the contamination becomes more toxic with time,” says Bo Hang, a scientist at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
How Long Does Third-Hand Smoke Linger?
The answer is: Potentially a very long time.
“In homes where we know no smoker has lived for 20 years, we’ve still found evidence of these compounds in dust, in wallboard,” says Neal Benowitz, who heads the Division of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of California. Since it poses threats even beyond cancer — even possibly provoking asthma attacks and allergic reactions — third-hand smoke also is a dangerously common occurrence for anyone who cleans professionally, like hotel workers. Bars or restaurants that previously allowed smoking could also suffer from lingering third-hand smoke.
The public may know the dangers of first and second-hand smoke by now, but it’s equally important they stay informed on third-hand smoke: It can be just as lethal despite being difficult to identify. Wherever third-hand smoke may be, individuals should be aware of its toxic nature.