We know smoking cigarettes or pipes or cigarillos or cloves can give you lung cancer, mouth cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, and stroke. It can cause cancer pretty much anywhere in your body, including your bladder, blood, and stomach. In fact, according to the CDC, if no one in America smoked, 1 in 3 cancer deaths would not happen.
Now, let’s be clear: Smoking does not make you a bad person, or a bad parent, but there are certain precautions to take to keep your children and others safe.
We also know that secondhand smoke — a combo, again according to the CDC, of smoke given off by the burning cigarette and smoke exhaled by the smoker — causes “more frequent and severe asthma attacks in children, respiratory infections, and SIDS,” in addition to ear infections and impaired lung function. In adults, secondhand smoke can cause heart disease, stroke, nasal irritation, lung cancer, and low birth weight. We know all these things. We know we shouldn’t smoke, and we know we especially shouldn’t smoke around kids. Period.
But we may not know that we shouldn’t sneak out the door for a smoke, then return inside to play with those same kids. But according to the Cleveland Clinic, third-hand smoke is as harmful as smoking and secondhand smoke. Third-hand smoke is the leftover nicotine and other chemicals that remain on clothing and other surfaces after someone smokes in the area. It can cling to carpets, stick to walls, and settle on furniture after the cigarette smoke clears. The Americans for Nonsmokers Rights explains that it may seem like this residue is just a stinky smell, but it’s actually a stew of dangerous chemicals.
To understand why third-hand smoke is so dangerous, it’s important to first understand that tobacco smoke is not just some burning leaf. Tobacco smoke contains “carcinogens and heavy metals, like arsenic, lead, and cyanide,” says Americans for Nonsmokers Rights. Sticky nicotine, highly toxic, can cling to household surfaces; gases can be absorbed into carpets, fabrics, and upholsteries. Sounds nasty, right?
A study found that these chemicals can then rerelease and reform other toxic compounds in the air, and according to the Mayo Clinic, you can’t eliminate any of this by opening windows, turning on fans, or otherwise attempting to air out the room. Moreover, as Scientific American notes , the Surgeon General says that there is no safe level of tobacco exposure — meaning that third-hand smoke is real, and it’s dangerous.
Cigarette smoke contains over 250 known toxins, and as original third-hand smoke researcher Jonathan Winickoff notes, one of them is lead, which is known to cause intellectual deficiencies in just small doses. Smokers themselves actually emit toxins such as cyanide and arsenic, he adds.
“The developing brain is uniquely susceptible to extremely low levels of toxins,” says Winickoff. “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 the contaminated surfaces. Imagine a teething infant.”
Exposure to the toxins on these surfaces, increases the risk of SIDS, according to Winickoff. It may also damage DNA, suggests the Cleveland Clinic. This toxic stew can cause breaks and ruptures in the very building blocks of your cells, they’ve found in rat studies, which leaves you susceptable to disease.
According to Cleveland Clinic, kids aren’t the only ones being harmed either: Third-hand smoke may also be causing more cancer cases than we realized as well. “There’s been an increased interest recently because we are seeing more lung cancer cases that are not related directly to firsthand or secondhand smoking,” says Humberto Choi, MD. They are now investigating cases other than direct exposure to smoking.
As if this weren’t dangerous enough, the worst part? It’s almost impossible to remove the residue. Cleaning can be wildly expensive, and the residue sticks around for years. I used to smoke pre-kids, and we had residue seeping Exorcist-like down our walls for years — even in rooms I never smoked in, like the hallways. Dr. Choi says that though the best bet is to never smoke in the first place, if you do smoke, to never ever smoke indoors. Go outside. Smoke. Come into the garage or utility room, change clothes completely, and then rejoin the company. You’ll still leak toxins, but at least you don’t have the toxins clinging to the fabric you’re wearing.
Third-hand smoke is scary, maybe as scary secondhand smoke, because it lasts longer. And all kids — and all adults — deserve to be safe from its effects.