Is Third-Hand Smoke A Hazard? Some scientists say toxins from cigarette smoke can cling to furniture and clothing after the smoke wafts away, possibly posing a danger to infants and children. Jonathan Winickoff discusses his new paper on the public's perception of the risk of third-hand smoke.
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Is Third-Hand Smoke A Hazard?

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Is Third-Hand Smoke A Hazard?

Is Third-Hand Smoke A Hazard?

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This is Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. If you live in New York, you may remember the good old days, when going out for a drink meant coming home smelling like an ashtray. Cigarette smoke and bars went together like gin and vermouth. I'm really dating myself now, I can see, because New York has since banned smoking in bars and restaurants. And that's a good thing, at least from a health perspective. Other cities have been doing the same thing sporadically. Health experts now know that second-hand smoke is bad for you.

It turns out that the smoke smell, the residue left on your clothing, may be more than just unpleasant, it may also be a health hazard itself. That lingering brew of spent cigarettes that clings to your hair and your clothes, even the furniture, is called third-hand smoke. And according to my next guest, it's loaded with heavy metals and other toxic compounds that could be dangerous for children.

Joining me now to talk more about it is Jonathan Winickoff. He is assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at Harvard Med School, and he joins us by phone. If you'd like to talk to Dr. Winickoff, our number is 1-800-989-8255. Also, you can surf over to our Web site at, and you can twitter us, @scifri, and talk to us in Second Life. Welcome to the program, Dr. Winickoff.

Dr. JONATHAN WINICKOFF (Assistant Professor, Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School): Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Did I describe third-hand smoke correctly?

Dr. WINICKOFF: I thought you did a great job.

FLATOW: What is in third-hand smoke?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Third-hand smoke is a toxic milieu of what's in second-hand smoke that then gets deposited on a thin layer in every indoor surface in which a cigarette is smoked.

FLATOW: And you have measured this?

Dr. WINICKOFF: I haven't personally. The study that I did looked at a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults. And we asked them whether breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. WINICKOFF: And what we found was that the majority of non-smokers, 65 percent, believed that third-hand smoke can harm infants and children. And only 43 percent of smokers believe that.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. And how would they, these children, come in contact with third-hand smoke?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Well, children have intense exposure to third-hand smoke because they breathe near, crawl on, touch and mouth contaminated surfaces. And so, you can imagine the teething infant, crawling along the floor in a home where smoking is allowed, and essentially ingesting tobacco toxins, which the surgeon general has said there is no safe level of.

FLATOW: Do we know how much toxins are in these substances?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Well, actually the number - the amount of toxin would depend on the size of the space...

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. WINICKOFF:...and the amount of exposure. And it would differ, as you suggested, between infants and children.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. But no one has actually tested children to see if they're absorbing any of the stuff from the furniture or the carpeting or the rug?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Oh, they have actually.

FLATOW: They have.

Dr. WINICKOFF: What they can find is markers of the tobacco toxin in their blood and urine.

FLATOW: Hmm. And so, you're saying now that we know that these kids are crawling and playing around in the third-hand smoke, there is a potential danger here?

Dr. WINICKOFF: I'd say it's more than potential. We know that very low levels of lead are associated with lower child IQ, and that's just one of the 250 toxins identified by the National Toxicology Program.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Your study got picked up by a lot of news agencies, and some of the online sites let people comment on the work. And I'm amazed at how mad some of these people seem to be about this issue. There are actual - they get very angry when you say this.

Dr. WINICKOFF: Well, I think there's a big difference between what smokers believe and what non-smokers believe. And I think that there's a Libertarian argument that says, you know, let smokers do what they want, and I would say that there's another argument on behalf of infants, children and non-smokers that says maybe we should allow them to breath in a toxin-free environment.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. You personally would ban all cigarettes, correct?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Well, I wouldn't actually ban all cigarettes. I think that people who smoke, particularly in the down economy - there's never been a better time to quit. I think smokers need support for quitting. And I think they need to try to find a way to deal with the very real stress and anxiety that is, you know - that they are dealing with with smoking using another method.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. How long does - do these third-hand smoke particles and the toxins in them - how long does it stay and - do they stay in the carpeting and the rug and things like that?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Well, a long time. We know that the volatile compounds will off gas over a period of days. However, the toxic layer of particles can last for days, months or longer, until they're physically scrubbed off the surfaces.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. So, if you go into an apartment that a smoker - or a house where a smoker has lived for many years, you should expect to have all these things on the furniture?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Absolutely.

FLATOW: And if you're worried about it, then the first thing you should do is get it cleaned? Is it a

Dr. WINICKOFF: Don't buy the property.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WINICKOFF: Don't buy the used car that smells like smoke. There's already a documented lowering of price. I would emphasize that's important. And I think that multi-unit housing should be completely smoke-free.

FLATOW: So you're saying don't - you're not even saying clean it up. You're saying don't buy it.

Dr. WINICKOFF: Well, I think if you clean it up and remove the fomites, things like rugs and sofas, then you could adequately decontaminate the space.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. WINICKOFF: I just think that sometimes, that's not worth the trouble.

FLATOW: And one more time, what scientific evidence is there that these compounds or metals actually get into our bodies this way?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Well, for example, we know that we can detect the level of cotinine in children's urine after they crawl around and ingest house dust from a household where smoking is allowed. So - we also know that in cars, for example, where you smell smoke, you then do a wipe on the surfaces, and you detect these toxic substances. So, there's very clear evidence that this poses an ingestion risk for children and that we can actually detect it in their bodily fluids.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. WINICKOFF: So, I think the debate is over on the toxicity. What we need to start thinking about is remedies.

FLATOW: And when you say, we need to start thinking about it, would you - would it be fair to say that we're now beginning a third tier? This is a sort of the beginning of research here on third-hand smoke?

Dr. WINICKOFF: I think so. I think this opens up some new avenues.

FLATOW: Have you gotten any interest from people who want to study that?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Absolutely.

FLATOW: What kind?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Well, we have a number of people emailing us that they'd like to do grants, you know - produce some grants looking at whether or not research on getting this message out can help protect infants and children. We also think that this will help protect vulnerable adults. These are people who - maybe they wouldn't even go to that smoky bar that you mentioned in your introduction, because they're too vulnerable to becoming wheezy. And maybe they had a heart condition, and maybe they couldn't even go into a situation like that. They, in the past, were invisible. And now, I'm hopeful that they'll have the same rights as everyone else to live in multi-unit housing that's smoke free.

FLATOW: You know, it was U.S. surgeon general back in the '60s who came out with those cigarette warnings. Do you expect something new, or will you be lobbying the new surgeon general on this?

Dr. WINICKOFF: Well, I hope that the new surgeon general understands that tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable morbidity and mortality in the United States. It's one of the most cost-effective things we can do to improve the health of the United States population. And in a down economy - there's really never been a better time to quite smoking. The average pack-a-day parent spends over $2,000 a year, after taxes, on their cigarettes. That's money that could be used to help the health and well-being of the children in the family.

FLATOW: Dr. Winickoff, thank you for taking time to be with us.

Dr. WINICKOFF: Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: Jonathan Winickoff is assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at Harvard Med School.

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