As most people are aware, smoking is bad for one's health. Also as most people are aware, second-hand smoke can be bad for anyone who breathes it in, particularly children. Yet a recent field of research has been documenting the dangers of third-hand smoke; a term used to describe the residual chemicals that can be left over from cigarettes even after the actual smoke clears. And a new study published earlier this year in the February 8 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA shows just how harmful such exposure might be.
A research team from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory warns that third hand smoke may be even more hazardous to children's health than first or secondhand smoke. The reason is that the remnants of cigarette smoke do not just benignly settle on surfaces to create a harmless chemical coating. Rather, their study found that leftover nicotine compounds can react with nitrous acid vapor--a chemical that is "environmentally common," and emitted from a variety of everyday sources; everything from gas appliances to vehicles. When this happens, the reaction produces carcinogenic compounds referred to as tobacco-specific nitrosamines, or TSNAs for short.
It's not merely the presence of these compounds that make third hand smoke so dangerous. After all, secondhand smoke contains TSNAs as well. But the presence of nitrous acid in a room or car can increase the numbers of these compounds several times over in the hours after a person stops smoking. More importantly, because this nicotine residue can linger on surfaces for weeks or even months, it can be a more persistent form of exposure than first or secondhand smoke, exposing children to carcinogens on an ongoing basis. This is what makes it so potentially dangerous.
TSNAs can be inhaled, ingested and absorbed through the skin. As usual, children are the most vulnerable to third hand smoke, just as they are with any cigarette smoke. Their small size means they get a much higher exposure per body weight, and with still developing bodies they also have the most to lose from hazardous chemical exposures of any type.
Though these findings are preliminary, they join a body of other research which has documented the dangers of third-hand smoke. Cigarette smoke--complete with all of its toxins--does not just vanish into thin air, despite the visual illusion that the wafting smoke gives of such. Its contents settle onto the surrounding areas in microscopic amounts too small to see, but they're there. Smoking and non-smoking parents alike need to be aware of this.
Children, and young children especially, are then exposed to these chemicals when they sit on a couch, put a toy in their mouth, or do any of those other things normal kids do. Perhaps the most toxic form of exposure can occur when a parent smokes in a car. Even if they do it when their kids aren't present, it's a confined space that will concentrate nicotine residue. If parents then use the same car to transport their kids, it can expose them to these TSNAs.
Public education campaigns have gotten most people to cease smoking around their children. Yet this needs to be taken one step further. Parents should avoid smoking anywhere their children share space, which includes the house or the family car. If you're not one of the 20% of Americans who smoke, you might tactfully spread this information to any of your friends that do.
To learn more about all child safety issues visit www.keepyourchildsafe.org
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