What is thirdhand smoke, and why is it a concern?
Answer From J. Taylor Hays, M.D.
Thirdhand smoke is residual nicotine and other chemicals left on indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke. People are exposed to these chemicals by touching contaminated surfaces or breathing in the off-gassing from these surfaces. This residue is thought to react with common indoor pollutants to create a toxic mix including cancer causing compounds, posing a potential health hazard to nonsmokers — especially children.
Thirdhand smoke clings to clothes, furniture, drapes, walls, bedding, carpets, dust, vehicles and other surfaces long after smoking has stopped. The residue from thirdhand smoke builds up on surfaces over time. To remove the residue, hard surfaces, fabrics and upholstery need to be regularly cleaned or laundered. Thirdhand smoke can't be eliminated by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air conditioners, or confining smoking to only certain areas of a home.
Children and nonsmoking adults might be at risk of tobacco-related health problems when they inhale, swallow or touch substances containing thirdhand smoke. Infants and young children might have increased exposure to thirdhand smoke due to their tendency to mouth objects and touch affected surfaces.
Thirdhand smoke is a relatively new concept, and researchers are still studying its possible dangers. In the meantime, the only way to protect nonsmokers from thirdhand smoke is to create a smoke-free environment.
J. Taylor Hays, M.D.
Aug. 21, 2020
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See more Expert Answers
- Samet JM, et al. Secondhand smoke exposure: Effects in children. https://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed June 9, 2017.
- Samet JM, et al. Control of secondhand smoke exposure. https://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed June 9, 2017.
- Bahl V, et al. Thirdhand cigarette smoke: Factors affecting exposure and remediation. PLOS One. 2014;9:e108258.
- Goniewicz ML, et al. Electronic cigarettes are a source of thirdhand exposure to nicotine. Nicotine and Tobacco Research. 2015;17:256.
- Ventilation does not effectively protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/secondhand_smoke/protection/ventilation/index.htm. Accessed June 9, 2017.
- Hays JT (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic. Rochester, Minn. June 16, 2017.
- Sleiman M, et al. Formation of carcinogens indoors by surface-mediated reactions of nicotine with nitrous acid, leading to potential thirdhand smoke hazards. PNAS. 2010;107:6576.