EDITORIAL: Thirdhand Smoke—What It Is and Why It May Be Causing Your Family Health Problems

EDITORIAL: Thirdhand Smoke—What It Is and Why It May Be Causing Your Family Health Problems

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You can expose your children, other family and friends to thirdhand smoke when they touch a contaminated surface or breathe in the residual nicotine that is off-gassing on the surfaces.

Most Arkansans know about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke, or smoke exhaled from burning cigarettes. But there’s a new phenomenon that is leading to serious disease, and Arkansans need to know and adjust their lifestyles accordingly.

Because we can stress it enough—smoking can cause disease and disability and harms nearly every organ of the body. More than 16 million Americans are living with a disease caused by smoking[1], and the Arkansas Department of Health says that tobacco kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined.[2] For every person who dies because of smoking, at least 30 people live with a serious smoking-related illness. Smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking also increases risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and problems of the immune system, including rheumatoid arthritis.1

Exposure to secondhand smoke contributes to approximately 41,000 deaths among nonsmoking adults and 400 deaths in infants each year. Secondhand smoke causes stroke, lung cancer, and coronary heart disease in adults. Children who are exposed to secondhand smoke are at increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory infections, middle ear disease, more severe asthma, respiratory symptoms, and slowed lung growth.1

Thirdhand smoke, however, isn’t smoke inhaled when the cigarette is burning. It’s all the residual nicotine and other chemicals that are left behind after the cigarette is out.

You can expose your children, other family and friends to thirdhand smoke when they touch a contaminated surface or breathe in the residual nicotine that is off-gassing on the surfaces.

So where can you find it? Thirdhand smoke clings to clothes, furniture, drapes, walls, bedding, carpets, dust, vehicles and other surfaces long after smoking has stopped.[3]

Children are especially at risk of thirdhand smoke because they touch surfaces and put objects in their mouths. Imagine a parent who responsibly takes their smoking outside to not expose their kids to secondhand smoke. But if that mom or dad comes back inside from smoking and then hugs their child or picks up the infant, that child has just been exposed to thirdhand smoke.

While more research is needed on the possible dangers, it’s believed thirdhand smoke can lead to harmful disease just as smoking and secondhand smoke can.

And because it builds up on surfaces over time, it can’t be eliminated simply by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air conditioners, or smoking only in certain areas of a home. To remove the residue, hard surfaces, fabrics and upholstery need to be regularly cleaned.

The only way to protect nonsmokers from thirdhand smoke is to create a smoke-free environment. If you need help quitting tobacco, call Be Well Arkansas at 1-833-283-Well for resources to help you quit.

Author: Dr. Marian Evans, Program Coordinator, Minority Initiative Sub-Recipient Grant Office (MISRGO) at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff


[1] https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/health_effects/index.htm

[2] https://www.healthy.arkansas.gov/programs-services/topics/tobacco-prevention-and-cessation

[3] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/third-hand-smoke/faq-20057791

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