Third-Hand Tobacco Smoke: What's Left After The Tobacco Smoke Clears?

by James Thompson, M.D. Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

There are more than 400,000 tobacco-related deaths annually in the U.S. Health statistics estimate about 3,000 teenagers try and then regularly smoke cigarettes on a daily basis. It's been well documented that passive exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, upper-respiratory tract and ear infections.

For years, doctors have addressed the different types of smoke exposure reporting on two main categories:

Active smoke: a person that actively smokes tobacco (cigarette or pipe)

Second-hand smoke: a person that breathes in side-stream smoke from the burning end of a cigarette or inhales the exhaled smoke from someone actively smoking.

Allergists and other asthma specialists have championed the cause for smoking cessation and the establishment of smoke free homes, cars and workplaces. The importance of completely banning smoke at all times in indoor environments was realized after research on Third-hand smoke.

Third-hand smoke exposure occurs when you inhale the small particulate residue of the burnt tobacco left behind from smoking that occurred minutes, hours or days ago.
Reports show smoked tobacco residue is a mixture of more than 200 gases, chemicals and metals, many of which are toxic to humans.
According to researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children these substances include: carbon monoxide, toluene, cyanide (a poison), arsenic (a poison sometimes used to kill animals), lead, chromium (found in steel products), cadmium (a component of many batteries), and several carcinogens (cancer causing compounds).

How do these particles stick around long after the smoking has stopped?

The toxic particulate matter from smoking gets into hair, clothing, carpets, curtains or drapes, stuffed furniture, pillows, mattresses, other textured material or fabric, and ducts. Normal house cleaning may reduce some of the particles but cannot eliminate them.

In that cars are much smaller spaces compared to homes, the third-hand level of exposure (which occurs despite the banning of active smoking while others are inside) is probably much more intense. In effect, the car is transformed into a gas chamber.

What steps can you take to eliminate or reduce third-hand smoke exposure?

    1. Do not allow any smoking in your home or car at any time.

    1. If exposure to others smoking in an indoor setting is unavoidable try to distance yourself from those engaged in it. Remove and clean your clothing and take a shower and shampoo soon after you get home.

    1. Encourage relatives and friends to stop smoking and inform them about third-hand smoke

    1. A growing number of states in the U.S. have smoking bands in all indoor public places (with few exceptions). If your state does not have one, write or call your congressman about establishing one.

    1. If you have a choice between carpet and hardwood flooring, pick the hardwood (linoleum or tile is also okay). Carpets hold on to irritants and allergens despite frequent cleaning. Many people with allergic breathing disorders are better off in carpet free homes.

No one has been able to establish a safe level of tobacco exposure. Many articles addressing third-hand smoke focus on young children. But realize anyone who breathes in tobacco residue may be at risk. The best thing to do is to avoid it as much as possible. You may end up spending less time with some of your friends. But perhaps you will increase the time you have to spend, in life.

James Thompson, M.D.
Meet Our Writer
James Thompson, M.D.

Dr. Thompson completed medical school and specialty training in allergy and immunology at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Allergy and Immunology. He sees adults and children in Chicago and greater Chicago area. He is also certified in Integrative Nutrition Coaching. Dr. Thompson is dedicated to incorporating holistic nutrition concepts into the treatment of asthma and other allergic diseases in order to achieve better health and reduce the need for medications.