Thirdhand Smoke: A Hidden Hazard for Kids and Babies

After the cigarette goes out, toxins and pollutants remain.

February 3, 2009

Infants and children, being low to the ground, are especially vulnerable to toxins left in house dust by cigarette smoke.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—People are more likely to enforce strict no-smoking bans in their homes if they understand that thirdhand smoke—the residue of more than 250 toxins left behind after a cigarette is put out—lingers and poses health risks, especially to babies and young children. “There’s no safe level of this stuff,” says Jonathan Winickoff, MD, MPH, at the Center for Child and Adolescent Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, whose study on the subject was published in the journal Pediatrics.


THE DETAILS: Researchers interviewed 2,000 people, 19% of whom were smokers. Overwhelmingly, the nonsmokers better understood that second- and thirdhand smoke harms children. Nearly 90% of nonsmokers, versus 27% of smokers, had strict home smoking bans. Teaching smokers about the health threat of thirdhand smoke to children could be an important element in encouraging home smoking bans, the researchers concluded. “The only way for a smoker to completely protect nonsmokers in their home is to quit smoking,” says Winickoff. The same is true for cars, where simply cracking a window won’t keep harmful toxins away.

WHAT IT MEANS: There’s no safe exposure level for cigarette smoke, including the stuff that sticks around in walls, carpets, curtains, toys, furniture, and even the smoker’s hair and clothing long after a cigarette or pipe is extinguished. Cigarette smoking accounts for at least 30% of all cancer deaths, and ups your risk of cancers of the mouth, nasal passages, larynx, throat, esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, kidney, bladder, and cervix. This study shows that the threat of invisible gunk containing lead, arsenic, and hundreds of other contaminants left behind by cigarette smoke is a powerful convincer to kick the habit.

A particularly dramatic fact about thirdhand smoke: Babies and toddlers are particularly vulnerable. In fact, babies can take in up to 20 times more thirdhand smoke than adults do. “Young children ingest twice as much house dust than adults,” Winickoff explains. “They’re on the floor, they breathe faster, and they’re mouthing everything they can, ingesting this toxic layer that’s been deposited.” Children are at an increased risk from the effects because their brains are still developing, and even low levels of cigarette smoke neurotoxins can have adverse consequences.

Here are the best ways to banish thirdhand smoke:

• Quit it. The most important strategy, of course, is to stop smoking. On an economic note, doing so could save you upwards of $2,000 a year. If your spouse also puffs, try quitting together—if one of you kicks the habit, the other is more than five times as likely to follow suit. To get started, check the phone book or your state’s government website for a free Quitline, which will provide free counseling on quitting. Until you stop smoking, though, try to cut back and only do it outside. Limiting your habit to one room of the house doesn’t work, Winickoff says.

• Trust your nostrils. If you smell smoke, cigarette toxins are lingering. To get them out, you’ll have to vigorously clean and wash fabrics. If your home washer doesn’t seem up to the task, look for dry cleaning that’s done without harmful solvents like perchloroethylene. To find a greener cleaner near you, check out or In some cases, getting rid of thirdhand smoke may require replacing carpets, rugs, or wallpaper. Winickoff doesn’t recommend buying a home or used car that smells of smoke, but if you do, factor in the cost and time involved in decontaminating it.

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