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Third Hand Smoke: A Silent Killer

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

By Christina Min

Graphic by Madeline Lee, Graphics Editor

Secondhand smoke (SHS) is the smoke from burning cigarette products that is inhaled by a person other than the active smoker. Essentially, it occurs when tobacco smoke permeates any environment. This can lead to many adverse health effects on the cardiovascular system and respiratory system.

The dangerous effects of secondhand smoke are quite apparent. For example, exposure to secondhand smoke during pregnancy can influence both the health of the mother and the fetus. Specifically in Mongolia, according to Nature, approximately 47.6% of females are exposed to SHS at home (global average of 35% among women). Breathing secondhand smoke interferes with the normal functioning of the heart, blood, and vascular systems and increases the risk of heart attacks. Additionally, other consequences include Sudden Infant Death Syndrome which is the sudden, unexplained, unexpected death of an infant in the first year of life.

However, what is less widely recognized is that we are not only restricted to intake second-hand smoke, but also exposed to third hand smoke (THS) — the absorption of toxic chemicals into fabrics, walls, furniture, and household dust. These poisons in tobacco smoke permanently stain surfaces and accumulate over time. These particles combine with gases in the air to form carcinogens that embed on different surfaces which have been found in dust samples taken from smoker's homes. These irritants are linked to poor health. In extreme cases, children can end up with poisons in their digestive system from touching contaminated objects and putting their hands in their mouth.

The most effective way to prevent thirdhand smoke is to avoid exposure altogether. This is because thirdhand smoke cannot simply be “let out” of your home as natural air flow is unable to lift chemical residue off surfaces. For a non-smoker, this could entail avoiding common areas of those who smoke. This may also be an incentive for smokers to quit as their smoke has long lasting consequences for hundreds of other people in the future, not just the people in their vicinity.

It is vital to understand and be aware of the specific risks associated with secondhand smoking as well as its silent but sinister cousin third hand smoke. A better understanding and better research may help devise policies aimed at reducing SHS and THS in the environment. This could improve the health of generations to come.


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