I know a lot of smokers who avoid smoking around their children to protect them from second-hand smoke. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be enough. Paediatrician, Jonathan Winickoff, now warns that we need to be aware of third-hand smoke – “the tobacco toxins that build up over time—one cigarette will coat the surface of a certain room [a second cigarette will add another coat, and so on]. The third-hand smoke is the stuff that remains [after visible or “second-hand smoke” has dissipated from the air]”.
Here is an excerpt from the article from Scientific American pointing out the dangers of cigarette smoke and how third-hand smoke can harm our children:
Why is third-hand smoke dangerous?
The 2006 surgeon general’s report says there is no risk-free level of tobacco exposure…. There are 250 poisonous toxins found in cigarette smoke. One such substance is lead. Very good studies show that tiny levels of exposure are associated with diminished IQ.
What do you consider the most dangerous compound in cigarette smoke?
I would say cyanide, which is used in chemical weapons. It actually interferes with the release of oxygen to tissues. It competitively binds to hemoglobin [meaning it competes with oxygen for binding sites on the blood’s oxygen-carrying molecule, hemoglobin]. Basically people with cyanide poison turn blue…. [And] arsenic, that is a poison used to kill mammals. We [used to] use it to kill rats. And there it is in cigarette smoke.
Why are the risks associated with exposure to third-hand smoke different for children and adults?
The developing brain is uniquely susceptible to extremely low levels of toxins. 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 [put their mouths to] the contaminated surfaces. Imagine a teething infant.
Children ingest twice the amount of dust that grown-ups do. Let’s say a grown-up weighs 150 pounds [68 kilograms]. Let’s say a baby weighs 15 pounds [seven kilograms]. The infant ingests twice the dust [due to faster respiration and proximity to dusty surfaces]. Effectively, they’ll get 20 times the exposure.
Studies in rats suggest that tobacco toxin exposure is the leading cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). We think it is [caused by] respiratory suppression.
The arguments over this new publication has been controversial with smokers and non-smokers lashing out both for and against the science behind it.
I have been anti-smoking for as long as I can remember. As children, both my brother and I harassed my father to quit smoking until he finally did. Those who know me are aware of my feelings on the subject even if I no longer crush cigarette packs or throw them away the moment I see them. Regardless of whether there is sufficient science to substantiate the true dangers of third-hand smoke, it cannot be denied that the pollutants from smoking are airborne and often spread a lot further than we perhaps realise. You only need to think of infections that are airborne (e.g. the common cold) to get an idea of how far it can spread.
“Monkey see, monkey do” – while our children are still young, we may still be able to pull the wool over their eyes and hide the fact that their parents are smokers, but what happens when they grow older? How can we teach our child not to pick up smoking if we are smokers?
At the end of the day, I think this article serves as a poignant reminder that smoking cessation is the only way to truly protect our children from the hazhards of cigarette smoke (be it first-hand, second-hand or third-hand). Proponents against the concept of “third-hand smoke” may argue that we are exposed to all manner of toxins in our daily lives of which cigarette toxins are just one small component, however, that doesn’t mean we should use this as an excuse to unnecessarily expose our children to further toxins.
Even if we readily accept the dangers that smoking presents to our own health, we should not inflict that danger upon our children who live under our care and protection and look to us as their providers.