Patients and family members often ask me about second- and third-hand smoke because of my role as a radiation therapist and a member of Sunnybrook's Smoking Cessation team.
People are starting to be more aware of the impact second-hand smoke has on non-smokers and children. That's why the Smoke Free Ontario Act states that you can't smoke in your car if there's a child in it.
The effects of third-hand smoke — that's the build-up of a cigarette's contaminants on a surface — are still being studied. Here are answers to some of the frequently asked questions I get about third-hand smoke.
When someone smokes, nicotine and other tobacco compounds accumulate on surfaces such as clothes, furniture, walls and vehicles, and can stay there several months after smoking has stopped, even after surfaces are washed. These residues are called third-hand smoke and contain toxic compounds, which have shown harmful effects on cells and animals in laboratory studies.
Smoke also clings to hair, fur, drapes, walls, bedding, carpets, dust, vehicles and other surfaces long after smoking has stopped. The residue builds up on surfaces over time. Third-hand smoke can't be eliminated by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air conditioners, or confining smoking to only certain areas of a home.
If you are in a home where someone has smoked, or in a car where someone smokes (even days later) you will likely smell smoke. That's because compounds from the smoke sticks to surfaces. This residue is thought to react with common indoor pollutants to create a toxic mix including cancer-causing compounds, posing a potential health hazard to nonsmokers — especially children.
Studies suggest that exposure to third-hand smoke can have an impact on non-smoking adults and children when they inhale, swallow or touch objects that contain third-hand smoke.
Babies crawl on the floor and put things in their mouths (no matter how much we chase them and try to stop them!) This means they take in more dust than adults and in turn more third-hand smoke.
Pets lick third-hand smoke from their fur when they groom themselves. Same when birds pick through their feathers. This grooming adds to their cancer risk, especially for cats.
Exposure to third-hand smoke has been linked to liver, lung and skin problems.
Researchers are still studying all possible dangers but the only way to protect non-smokers is to create a smoke-free environment.
Written by Bonnie Bristow, a radiation therapist and a member of Sunnybrook's Smoking Cessation Committee.