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What Is Third-Hand Smoke?

Updated on October 4, 2011

News coverage of third-hand smoke

What Is Third Hand Smoke?

Have you ever smelled a smoker's hair or hand? Have you ever been able to tell that the person next to you on the bus is a smoker because he reeks like an ashtray? How about stepped into an elevator and been able to tell through a faint whiff in the air that a smoker had recently ridden in the elevator? Or checked into a non-smoking room in a hotel only to know that someone had broken that no-smoking rule?

If you answered yes to any of these scenarios, then you have experienced third-hand smoke. 

First-hand smoke is what a smoker inhales. Second-hand smoke is what everyone around that person inhales when he or she is smoking, and smoke is visible in the air. Both of these are well-documented and widely accepted to be dangerous and to pose myriad public health risks.

Now researchers are saying that third-hand smoke exists, and that toxins in that third-hand smoke lingers longer than anyone realized — months and even as much as a year in some cases. More alarming, babies and children seem more susceptible to third-hand smoke than adults do, in part because children are smaller so a little toxicity means greater contamination, and also because babies and kids are constantly putting things in their mouths, including their hands.

Third-hand smoke has all the same toxins as first- and second-hand smoke, and it is considered more dangerous than everyday toxins in the air like car exhaust. Cigarette smoke has over 250 toxins in it, including such obviously dangerous compounds as lead, arsenic, cyanide, butane and carbon monoxide.

These poisons found in tobacco smoke are particularly dangerous to children, as developing brains are susceptible to even low levels of toxins. There's a reason why old houses with ancient lead paint remnants are still considered dangerous to children.

First- and second-hand smoke exposure have been shown to result in lower IQs.

Is Third Hand Smoke Dangerous?

While scientists and doctors determined years ago that third-hand smoke exists and can linger on furniture, on walls and in the air longer than anyone previously thought, there haven't yet been any conclusive studies on the health effects of third-hand smoke — the tobacco smoke contamination that exists after a cigarette has been put out.

Because there are toxins present in third-hand smoke, and because first- and second-hand smoke has been proven to cause heart disease and other health problems, doctors believe that third-hand smoke is dangerous, especially to babies and children. But there is no evidence that this is so.

This will be an area of greater study in coming years as doctors seek to prove what they believe is a public health threat.

Not everyone believes in third-hand smoke, or that it is a real health threat

How Can I protect My Children From Third-Hand SMoke?

The best way to protect your children from third-hand smoke is to make sure that nobody in your household smokes. Third-hand smoke and its potential dangers are a great reason to quit smoking!

If you have successfully quit smoking, have a professional cleaning service like COIT to come in and deep clean your furniture, upholstery, curtains and rugs. If you have been a heavy smoker and can afford it, consider buying new rugs. And be sure to wash all your clothes and shoes.

If you move into a house where a smoker used to live, repaint the walls. A fresh coat of paint can't completely cover third-hand smoke, but it's an extra barrier that can't hurt.

Keep your children from going to friends houses where somebody in the household smokes.


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    • s.carver profile image

      s.carver 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Sydo: I no longer have the records of my sources for this essay. Sorry. If you do a google search on third-hand smoke, I am sure you will find stories in the New York Times or other newspapers that can direct you to the scientific studies that have been done. Good luck!

    • profile image

      Sydo 5 years ago

      I'm a 5th grader doing a project on smoking and its hazards. I already knew about second hand smoke and it is a part of my project but I didn't know about third hand smoke. Wow! Now that you posted this I will include this. Could you post your resources so that I can have them to give proper credit in my report. Thnx.

    • s.carver profile image

      s.carver 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks you guys. MichaelCooper: I learned about this from my sister, who just had a baby. Our mother smokes, and my sister is insistent that washing hands after a cigarette isn't enough -- my mom must shower, change clothes, or simply not smoke at all when visiting the baby. Good luck in your quest!

    • MichaelCooper profile image

      MichaelCooper 6 years ago from Chester

      Interesting hub, Thanks for this information, I'm currently on a mission to get everyone in my family smoke free.

    • sarclair profile image

      sarclair 6 years ago

      I had no idea about third hand smoke, and the risks. This is an interesting hub. Thank you for sharing.