Recently, Barack Obama announced his New Year’s resolution to give up smoking and reminded us healthy types that people do still smoke, and in large numbers. In fact, one in five Americans still has the nasty habit. A new study hopes to convince those 43.4 million smoking US citizens and 1.2 billion smokers worldwide to quit. The recent study out of the Harvard Medical School found that large numbers of people are not aware that toxic residues from cigarette smoke linger long after the cigarette burns out, creating “third-hand smoke” that can harm infants and children — and adults, too.
As anyone with a working nose can attest, the smell of tobacco clings to a smoker’s hair and clothing, gets into carpets and furniture, into automobile seats, and sticks to walls. Because cigarette smoke contains 250 poisonous gases, chemicals, and heavy metals, that residue, known as third-hand smoke, poses a real threat to those who come into contact with it. A report on the Harvard study, published in the journal Pediatrics, notes that children exposed to contaminated surfaces — including, for instance, by crawling on the floor in a room that was smoked in even days earlier, or by touching the hair or clothing of a parent who smokes outdoors — can pick up carcinogenic and radioactive residues.
The dangerous components of cigarette smoke include a hair-raising array of poisons, including hydrogen cyanide, used to create chemical weapons; carbon monoxide; butane, which is a component of lighter fluid; ammonia; toluene (found in paint thinners); arsenic; lead; cadmium (a component of batteries); and the highly radioactive polonium-210. In fact, cigarette smoke contains eleven carcinogens categorized as Class 1, the most dangerous kind.
According to Dr. Philip Landrigan, head of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, “There are carcinogens in this third-hand smoke, and they are a cancer risk for anybody of any age who comes into contact with them.” But the director of the Harvard study, Dr. Jonathan Winickoff of Massachusetts General Hospital, is particularly concerned about children. “The developing brain is uniquely susceptible to extremely low levels of toxins,” he says. “Remember how we talked about the layers of toxin deposits on surfaces? Who gets exposure to those surfaces? Babies and children are closer to [surfaces such as floors]. They tend to touch or even mouth [put their mouths to] the contaminated surfaces. Imagine a teething infant. Children ingest twice the amount of dust that grown-ups do.”
Even at extremely low levels, the contaminants from cigarettes have been linked to cognitive impairment in children. As Dr. Winickoff points out, “The 2006 surgeon general’s report says there is no risk-free level of tobacco exposure.” The study discovered that while most people know secondhand smoke poses a threat to kids, only 65.2 percent of nonsmokers and 43.3 percent of smokers are aware of the dangers of third-hand smoke. This translates into the fact that only about 25 percent of households in the United States impose strict rules prohibiting indoor smoking. It’s common for even relatively enlightened parents to smoke when their child is out of the room, for instance, eliminating the danger of secondhand smoke but creating a third-hand smoke problem.
An earlier study conducted by Dr. George Matt of San Diego State University found that 90% of the nicotine in cigarette smoke remains on exposed surfaces long after the butt burns out. The residue may be absorbed into the body through swallowing, inhaling, or touching an affected surface, and the contaminants can linger on surfaces for months. Smoking outdoors eliminates some of the danger, but even in homes where parents always went outside to smoke, Dr. Matt found levels of tobacco contaminants up to seven times greater than in nonsmoking homes. A Swedish study found that children of parents who smoked outdoors had more ear infections and respiratory problems than children of nonsmokers. The homes of indoor smokers had toxicity levels 56 times greater than the homes of nonsmokers. At the time Dr. Matt conducted his work, in 2004, 43% of children aged two months to 11 years lived with a smoker.
The sad and astounding fact is that a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that smoking still accounts for 20 percent of all deaths in the US; one in five people still smokes, and in much of the world, the numbers are far worse. As I wrote in a recent blog, the developing world in particular has been the “beneficiary” of relentless campaigning by the big tobacco companies, with the result that, for instance, 75 percent of all adult males over age 30 in China now smoke. That’s a lot of smoking!
While kids may suffer the most from exposure to third-hand smoke, those of us past Sesame Street age also are at risk. You aren’t being a fusspot by demanding a non-smoking hotel room or rental car — you’re being wise. The bottom-line message here is that it makes sense to avoid having smokers light up in your home, near your home, in your car, near your clothing, near your spot at the beach, and certainly anywhere near your kids. If you find yourself in a room filled with old musty tobacco odors, get out.
As Dr. Landrigan, the Mt. Sinai physician mentioned above said, “The central message here is that simply closing the kitchen door to take a smoke is not protecting the kids from the effects of that smoke.” Nor is it protecting you, your pets, or your loved ones. Take note.