Field of Science

Third hand smoking - Can we ban this poison already?
I’m not going to write a post on why smoking is bad, it’s too obvious and if you don’t understand why then your probably never going to find this post anyway. I’m not even going to talk about second hand smoking, ie. blowing your death cloud at me on the street. Again it’s obvious why it’s bad and may even be worse than smoking the cigarette itself as second hand smokers don’t get the benefit of a filter. No, this post is about third hand smoking, a fun new way smokers can harm those around them long after they have butted out.
Yeah. That looks healthy.
I want to say here I don’t hate smokers, just smoking. That position will change however if you smoke near my food or drink or blow smoke directly at me. If you do that I’m going to nerd rage and you will take both barrels from someone who has spent the last decade in biomedical science. Just a warning…

The terms first, second and third hand smoke describe where the smoke came from. First hand smoke goes directly from the cigarette into the smokers lungs, second hand smoke comes from the exhaled smoke or smouldering end of a lit cigarette into a non-smoking persons lungs and third hand smoke is the contamination and subsequent consumption of items in an environment after the cigarette has been extinguished.

As the smoke dissipates and becomes invisible we tend to forget about it but cigarette smoke is full of fine particulate matter that then settles on everything in the local environment. Subsequent cigarettes layer particulate on top of previous layers and so a build up occurs. The smaller the area you smoke in the quicker the build up, for example the worse place seems to be the car.

Sleiman et al. (2010) looked at the formation of carcinogens on surfaces by looking at the interaction of nicotine and nitrous acid (found in the air) and found that if they left a cellulose pad in a smokers car to absorb third hand smoke and react with the air they could collect known carcinogens. In total they found 11 different carcinogens including, wait for it, polonium-210!!!
Even the cigarettes are sad.
Of course smokers also carry around third hand smoke on their skin and clothes so they too are also a walking, talking source of contamination.

The harm in third hand smoke is exaggerated in children, which of course is excellent. Children have higher respiration rates and so take in second hand smoke faster but also crawl around on the ground and put things in their mouths which are covered in third hand smoke residues. That’s not anecdotal either, children consume up to 20 times the amount of dust that adults do and when third hand smoke residue is present children get the brunt of the exposure.

At this stage no specific diseases have been linked to third hand smoke exposure but it is only a matter of time. In 2006 the US Surgeon General stated that there is no-risk free level of tobacco exposure and with more than 250 identified dangerous chemicals in each cigarette that’s a bit of an understatement. Prolonged second hand smoking is now associated with all sorts of respiratory conditions and cancers. Given that third hand smoking was only first described in 2010 it wont be long till we identify associated problems with cigarette residue exposure. Given the exposure to children is exaggerated many are tipping currently unexplained developmental impairment as a serious consequence of third hand smoking.

So how do we deal with third hand smoke? Easy actually. Beg, plead, cajole and support everyone you know to quit. Clean all your surfaces regularly, particularly around children and quit! Seriously, please quit.
This blog is a no smoking area.

Avol EL, Gauderman WJ, Tan SM, London SJ, & Peters JM (2001). Respiratory effects of relocating to areas of differing air pollution levels. American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine, 164 (11), 2067-72 PMID: 11739136
Sleiman M, Gundel LA, Pankow JF, Jacob P 3rd, Singer BC, & Destaillats H (2010). Formation of carcinogens indoors by surface-mediated reactions of nicotine with nitrous acid, leading to potential thirdhand smoke hazards. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (15), 6576-81 PMID: 20142504


  1. I've noticed that smokers have a tendency to litter. Like second- and third-hand smoke, this has the potential to affect not only humans but other life forms as well. And thus, the entire environment.

    Individual rights are great, but we shouldn't forget, we don't live in isolation.

  2. Totally agree, thanks for the comment :)

  3. What a great article, was completely unaware of third hand smoke :P
    Just another bullet to rage with.

  4. @ Kay
    Its weird, you said "Just another bullet to rage with" and The Smashing Pumpkins lyric "despite of my rage I am still just a rat in a cage"now won't leave my head.

    Glad you liked the piece :)

  5. As a smoker I think that this is a huge government issue. I would be extremely happy if cigarettes were illigal, as they should be. Although my mother and many others smoked while pregnant, smoked in their cars, homes, air planes, and restuarants with their childen constantly on the side of them, it's amazing that we don't all have cancer. Also leaving me at greater risk for becoming a smoker, as I am. Yet our goverment makes BILLIONS of dollars off of smokers like myself in order to pay for construction, health care and even day care for our children. Until the goverment finds a way to make money off of legalized marijuana or some other source, they will continue to sell cigarettes at the local conveniance store, even while MILLIONS die from cancer every year. Although many cancers are not related to smoking, who knows of the possible genetic predisposition in cells from earlier generations of smoking. Therefore leaving more of these cases related to smoking than what we are aware of, including many children dying in St. Luke's Hospital with various forms of cancer, believed to not be directly related to smoking. Unfortunately wearing a nicotine patch is not something that will work for me. However e-cigarettes and nicotine gum is not covered by insurance, and numerous studies have proven that cigarettes are harder to quit than heroin. Due to increasing prices approximately 7 years ago, cigarette sales dramatically dropped. Therefore the tobacco industry decided to make cigarettes 4 times more addictive and 5 times more likely to cause cancer. Our government allowed this? I have quit twice in the past, once for a year and a half, and the second time for over 6 years, but NOW it's dam near impossible for me to quit thanks to our lovely government. In addition to this, Health insurance needs to provide for more "preventive care" in numerous areas of health care, including drug treatment and counseling, the extreme addiction of cigarettes, alcohol treatment and much much more. Especially preventive care in regards to disease and home care etc.. Preventive care VERSES the expensive after cost of drug abuse, cancer and respiratory illness/disease, car accidents and liver failure from alcohol abuse which again should NOT be legal, and so forth. Funny the other day I walked into a restuarant that said e-cigarettes were prohibited due to customer complaints. But if the person had a medical need to be on an oxygen tank the non smokers I guess wouldn't complain. So much for encouraging a smoke free world huh? Some people have no brains just mouths to complain I guess. Reminds me of the previous post that says "I am just a rat in a cage". For the record I clean my surfaces reguarly in regards to third hand smoke and do not smoke around any non smokers. I am very happy people are becoming educated in regards to third hand smoke. However I feel some of my loved ones tend to focus on dramatic effects of "occasional" visits to my home in regards to third hand smoke rather than just saying they can't handle the smell. Maybe more non smokers need to spend more time writing letters to legislature rather than spending ten minutes complaining that their child will "instantly die" from third hand smoke contact? Especially since third hand smoke has yet to be linked to any disease AND common sense says that this "potential" hazard would be more risky if you actually "lived" in the home. Makes you wonder how children used to share popsicles and drink tap water without dying.


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