Everybody knows that secondhand smoke is harmful to the health of nonsmokers, so many parents who light up will open windows or smoke in other rooms or outside to keep their bad habit from affecting their kids.
But now researchers warn that such measures aren't enough to protect kids from the dangers of smoking. A new study reporting on the ill effects of third-hand smoke — the lingering tobacco smell that remains even when visible smoke is gone — says that while invisible, this cigarette after-effect poses a health risk to kids.
The study of 1,500 adults found that most respondents knew about the dangers of secondhand smoke, with 95% of nonsmokers and 84% of smokers agreeing that "inhaling smoke from a parent's cigarette can harm the health of infants and children."
But many, particularly smokers, were unaware that third-hand smoke (the tobacco toxins that build up over time and linger in carpets, sofas, and clothes for hours or even days after a cigarette is smoked) also is hazardous to infants and children.
According to the study's authors, kids are especially vulnerable to third-hand smoke exposure because they breathe near, crawl and play on, touch, and put their mouths on contaminated surfaces.
Overall, 65% of nonsmokers and 43% of smokers agreed that third-hand smoke harms kids. The study also found those who felt that third-hand smoke was harmful were much more likely to enforce a strict no-smoking policy in their home.
Researchers hope that calling attention to the health risks to kids from third-hand smoke — in addition to those from secondhand smoke — may prompt parents who currently allow smoking in the home to "alter home smoking practices to protect better the health of their children."
Need more incentive to kick the habit? Another new study has found that if parents smoke, chances are their adolescents will, too (with smoking fathers' influence on their teen sons being especially strong). The good news is that the researchers also found that kids of parents who had quit smoking were no more likely to smoke than kids whose parents had never smoked.
What This Means to You
The 2006 U.S. Surgeon General's report stated that there is no risk-free level of tobacco exposure. Tobacco smoke contains 250-plus chemicals proven to be toxic or carcinogenic (cancer-causing), from arsenic and ammonia to hydrogen cyanide. What's worse, concentrations of many of these chemicals are higher in secondhand smoke than in the smoke inhaled by the smokers themselves.
The healthiest option, of course, is for parents who smoke to kick the habit. Doing so can be extremely hard — it might take several attempts and the extra help of a program or support group.
But whether you go smoke-free or not, it's critical to limit kids' smoke exposure:
- Never smoke during pregnancy or around infants.
- Always take your smoke breaks outside — away from kids and anyone who's pregnant. Smoke lingers in the air hours after cigarettes are put out, so if you light up anywhere inside your home, your children are inhaling your smoke, too.
- Never smoke in your car with kids — exhaling out the window does little, if anything, to reduce their exposure.
- Insist on smoke-free policies wherever kids go — school, day care, restaurants, businesses, and other people's homes.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2009
Source: "Beliefs About the Health Effects of 'Thirdhand' Smoke and Home Smoking Bans," Pediatrics, Jan. 2009.