Potential Dangers of Thirdhand Smoke
By: Joseph Cunningham | April 2, 2019
Most of us have heard of secondhand smoke, but a newer term, thirdhand smoke, is gaining traction as research is showing the potential dangers, and the links between exposure and disease.
Thirdhand smoke, or THS, is nicotine and other chemical residue left behind after smoking, that builds up on physical surfaces. The carcinogens from tobacco smoke can cling to walls and ceilings or be absorbed into carpets and upholstery, and they remain there for weeks. Health Education Research conducted at Oxford University found that just a single day of smoking in an indoor setting can expose people to tobacco toxins for months. If you’ve ever been inside a smoker’s home or car and noticed discolored walls, windows or other surfaces, that is THS.
Exposure to THS can happen in three ways: it can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. According to the National Environmental Health Association, children are at a greater risk for negative effects because they spend more time indoors, inhale 40 times more than adults, and their age specific-behaviors cause them to absorb more through ingestion and their skin.
The beliefs centered on THS are also of concern. In a study released by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, only 43 percent of smokers (65 percent of nonsmokers) believe that THS can actually cause harm to their health or their child.
However, according to the American Cancer Society, THS may be even more dangerous than secondhand smoke, since it’s more difficult to avoid and in a more concentrated form. A report in the Environmental Science and Technology Journal found that THS may cause up to 60 percent of the harm caused by routine exposure to smoke, which could equal years of life lost.
The recent research into the effects of THS is an emerging health care challenge for primary care physicians and medical professionals. Emphasizing the potential dangers of THS to children’s health might be an important factor in encouraging parents not to smoke around their children or allow them to be in areas where smoking has previously occurred.
As the surgeon general warned, there is no risk-free level of tobacco exposure and even brief exposure can be harmful to health. The only way to protect children and nonsmokers is to create a tobacco-free and smoke-free environment in both private and public places.
Joseph R. Cunningham, M.D. is the president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma, a Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company.
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