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What is thirdhand smoke, and is it harmful?

By Sanjay Gupta, MD/

A: Everyone knows about the health risks of inhaling secondhand smoke, but even remnants of tobacco smoke on surfaces can pose a danger. Thirdhand smoke refers to nicotine and other particles that cling to clothing, furniture, carpets, drapes, and walls, as well as to a person’s hair and skin.

“Perhaps you have checked into a smoking room in a hotel and have smelled the thirdhand smoke when you opened the door,” says Hal Strelnick, MD, division chief of community health for the department of family and social medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. “That odor indicates that the many chemicals that have no scent in thirdhand smoke are also present.”

Researchers have found that substances in secondhand smoke can react with other indoor pollutants to form potentially carcinogenic compounds. A 2013 study from the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory specifically traced one such compound, nitrosamine, to genetic damage in human cells.

“The cumulative effect of thirdhand smoke is quite significant,” according to study co-author Lara Gundel. “The findings suggest the materials could be getting more toxic with time.”

People are exposed to thirdhand smoke by inhaling it, ingesting it, or through direct skin contact. Infants and young children are especially vulnerable if they crawl on floors or put fingers in their mouth.

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“All tobacco smoke is toxic,” says Dr. Strelnick. “We know that its dangers are dose-related. Therefore, we can assume that the more time a nonsmoker spends in places where there is thirdhand smoke, the more likelihood there is of harm.”

Once smoke residue builds up, routine cleanings and opening windows to air out rooms aren’t enough to get rid of it. Carpets and drapes may need to be professionally cleaned or replaced.

“The only way to protect nonsmokers from thirdhand smoke is to create a smoke-free environment, whether that’s your private home or vehicle, or in public places, such as hotels and restaurants,” Strelnick says.

Do you have a health-related question for Dr. Gupta? You can submit it here. For more health news and advice, visit Health Matters With Dr. Sanjay Gupta.