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News Room: Industry News

“Thirdhand Smoke” Leaves Permanent Health Traces

Monday, October 8, 2012   (0 Comments)
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What's Happening from Environmental Building News

Outdoor smokers still absorb carcinogenic compounds on their clothing and hair; these are re-emitted as "thirdhand smoke” and transferred to other people and surfaces.

By Erin Weaver

If you’ve ever walked into an empty room and picked up that telltale whiff of stale tobacco smoke, you’ve been exposed to thirdhand smoke—which recent studies suggest could pose unique health hazards.

Thirdhand smoke (also called THS), a residue of gases and particulates found on cigarette smokers’ skin, hair, and clothing as well as on cushions, carpeting, and other surfaces, remains long after secondhand smoke (SHS) has cleared from a room. According to Suzaynn Schick, Ph.D., of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California–San Francisco, typical ventilation removes only about half of the particulate matter released by smoking; the remaining nicotine and other components accumulate on surfaces and are re-emitted over time. Mohamad Sleiman, Ph.D., of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) defines thirdhand smoke with "three Rs”: pollutants that remain on surfaces and in dust, are re-emitted as gases, or react with compounds in the environment to form secondary pollutants.

Eleven components of thirdhand smoke have been found to be highly carcinogenic, and nicotine on surfaces can form carcinogenic, tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines (TSNAs) when it reacts with gases from vehicle exhaust, improperly vented gas stoves, or additional lit cigarettes. Smoke components also react with other compounds to produce many ultrafine particles yet to be identified, whose size of less than 100 nanometers could facilitate their uptake by and distribution within the body (see "Nanomaterials: How Big a Concern?” EBN June 2012).

Smokers, especially parents, often step outside, thinking that by doing so they’re harming no one but themselves—but researcher Georg Matt, Ph.D., of San Diego State University describes these individuals as "mobile tobacco contamination packages.” Clothing and hair readily absorb secondhand smoke and re-emit it as thirdhand smoke, which can be transferred directly through contact or accumulate in dust particles in the home or office. Further study of real-world exposure levels is needed, but infants could be at particular risk because they consume up to twice as much dust as adults.

Thirdhand smoke remains for months even after a home is vacated, re-emitting even through a fresh coat of paint. To thoroughly clean, says Schick, "you have to take out the wallboard. It’s like cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina.” Some multifamily and public housing has been declared smoke-free because, as Matt observes, "We ask for nonsmoker hotel rooms, nonsmoker apartments, and we prefer nonsmoker cars when we buy used cars.... Real-estate agents know that smoking affects property values.” Research now supports what a lot of people have already sensed: odor is not the only reason to avoid thirdhand smoke.

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