Concern swirls anew over health risks posed by nasty ‘third-hand’ smoke

smoky-300x225It may not come as much more than a duh factor to  nonsmokers with roomies with a heavy cigarette habit, but medical scientists are expressing growing concern about risks posed by “third hand” smoke, residual films left on all manner of environments and surfaces by burning tobacco, close and far.

Multiple media outlets reported on the growing evidence on this potential harm, notably as detailed in a study published in the journal Science Advances. The research, conducted almost by chance, “shows how tobacco smoke from outdoor air can seep into a nonsmoking classroom and coat its surfaces, and how those hazardous chemicals often become airborne again and circulate throughout buildings via central air-conditioning systems,” the Washington Post said.

The newspaper reported that indoor and outdoor air experts at Drexel University in Philadelphia had teamed up and happened to sample surfaces from an empty classroom near their testing lab. They were intrigued to find chemical traces they could not explain, and which they first thought might be tied to coffee spills. But sleuthing led them to determine the residues were from nicotine and tobacco smoke, which only could have been carried into the space by air conditioning or supposed fresh air breezes.

The nondescript classroom was in a nonsmoking building, so the residues unlikely built up by cigarette or tobacco use in the immediate area. But it was several dozen feet away from an outdoor area where smokers are known to puff, and it was part of an HVAC system with smokers on it, though far away.

What did the residues signal to researchers? Peter DeCarlo, an atmospheric chemist at Drexel and lead author, told the Washington Post of the study:

‘It shows that just because you’re in a nonsmoking environment, it doesn’t mean you aren’t exposed to tobacco. That Uber car you jump into, the hotel room you stay in, even a classroom where smoking hasn’t been allowed for decades: These are places where you are often exposed to a lot more than you expect.’

The Washington Post noted that others, besides the Drexel researchers, have cautioned about third-hand smoke:

One study published this year showed third-hand smoke increased risk of lung cancer in mice. Another study published last year showed an increased risk of liver damage and diabetes in mice. A third study published this year focused on casinos and showed that six months after smoking was banned, heavy smoke residue remained on the walls and carpet.

In my practice, I see the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the great damage that can be inflicted on them by smoking and nicotine abuse.  The FDA recently reported that tobacco use, mostly cigarette smoking, kills roughly 480,000 Americans annually and costs the nation almost $300 billion in direct medical costs and lost productivity.

The Washington Post reported that, “Public health experts have accumulated mountains of data on how lethal smoking is. And they have vast data on the harms of secondhand smoke. But the idea of third-hand smoke began to emerge only in the past decade.” The newspaper continued:

Public health advocates worry that those most vulnerable to the harmful effects of third-hand smoke are also those who most likely to come into contact with it. A baby crawling on the ground, for example, has much more contact with carpets where cigarette residue often resides. And because of increasing socioeconomic disparities in smoking, low-income families are more likely to live in homes and neighborhoods where decades of smoking have led to third-hand smoke accumulation.

This is unacceptable. It’s bad enough that Americans are felled by smoking, and by inhaling smoke from users nearby (second-hard damage). But as evidence mounts that harmful materials move so readily and accumulate due to smoking, this should light a fire under lawmakers and regulators to rid the nation even more of this addictive, damaging, nasty, and even lethal habit.

By the way, it’s such a newish fad that medical scientists haven’t, perhaps, yet addressed if vaping and e-cigarettes pose second- and third-hand risks. Of course, research already suggests that vaping devices carry their own risks, not the least of which is their efficiency in hooking young people on nicotine and leading them to cigarette smoking.

But, as a New Yorker magazine piece reported, the hipness and ease of vaping, notably with the small Juul device, is creating what Jonathan Winickoff, former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Tobacco Consortium, called a “massive public health disaster.” The magazine story, worth a read, includes many descriptions of youngsters surrounded by clouds of vaping “smoke.” Is it, too, creating third-hand risks that we need to know much more about?

Photo credit: © 2005,  Tomasz Sienicki, Creative Commons

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