Earth News Journal 50: Thirdhand Smoke

The health atrocities associated with smoking tobacco are numerous and widespread, but a more recently-defined phenomenon known as thirdhand smoke is becoming of heightened concern in the studies of American health.

Also known as residual tobacco smoke, thirdhand smoke can be any mixture of lingering tobacco and indoor air pollutants, combining to form a potentially-carcinogenic cocktail of adverse health effects, including the risk of cancer, asthma attacks, and allergic reactions.

This unseen menace can remain indefinitely in the walls, carpet, and ventilation of a home or automobile of a smoker – even in the abode of a person who once smoked but has since given up the drug in years prior. Hair, clothing, skin, and fingernails are all surfaces that trap and capture wafting tobacco smoke, leaving it exposed for infants, children, and the elderly – the most susceptible populations to thirdhand smoke’s health concerns.

“Thirdhand smoke is harmful to our genetic material. And the contamination becomes more toxic with time,” noted Bo Hang, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Research has uncovered these compounds in homes once owned by smokers but currently occupied by non-spoking residents.

“So far, we have not found an exposed environment where you cannot measure it any more. It’s virtually impossible to remove this stuff unless you remove the flooring and drywall,” George Matt, chair of the Department of Psychology at San Diego State University in California, stated.

So far, there are few suggestions on how to rid a room of such pollutants. “We are waiting for some kind of new-generation cleaner,” Hang added. Experts’ best advice is to stay clear from smoking facilities (current or previous) as much as possible. “I think we should advise parents not to expose their children to thirdhand smoke, not to rent hotel rooms or cars used by smokers,” Neal Benowitz of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco said. Bottom line? “If you can avoid it, avoid it.”


Smoking has always been a prominent social issue in the United States: the plantations governing slaves to tend the tobacco used in smoking products; the roaring twenties’ popular assertion of smoking, beauty, and fortune; the present attempt of public eradication amid a portion of people still addicted to the lethal drug, some intending to stop, others refuse. I conjecture that almost every family in America has been affected by this widespread bodily-poison, and I can personally speak to my own family history and smoking’s deadly consequences. My grandfather on my mother’s side once smoked prolifically – around the house, outside on the porch, in public domain – when his children were still maturing. After decades of this relentless addiction, my grandfather committed to quitting after enduring a heart surgery that had all of his family extremely concerned for his health and wellbeing. Christmas morning some seven years ago, I remember waking to the sound of a door closing in the early hours of the morn and immediately went to my window to investigate. Anticipating a red-suited man and a gaggle of reindeer, I was met by the sight of my grandfather expelling another cigarette: he had commenced his prior habits, once again, despite his current state of health. After that ruined holiday, I have watched this man slowly waste away from the drug perched on his lips. Not only has his personal health been affected by his choices, but the health of my grandmother, my mother as a child, and my own health going to visit my grandparents has been impacted by this tobacco infestation. It doesn’t help that my grandparents have lived in the same house for several decades. I can practically see the accumulation of tobacco on the walls, floors, and furniture, though it remains naked to the human eye. Perhaps if all retail of smoking products was eliminated, the American people could take back their own free will from this drugged state-of-mind and preserve the health of their fellow citizens, friends, family members, too.   

Brink, Susan. “Thirdhand Smoke Is Real – And Risky to Your Health.” National Geographic. N.p., 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.

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