The term ‘secondhand smoke’ refers to the smoke and vapors inhaled by nonsmokers who are in the vicinity of someone who is smoking. When a person puffs into a cigarette, the smoke they exhale fills the room and contains just as many toxins as what the smoker breathed in. The toxins from secondhand smoke may be even more dangerous than that from first-hand smoke, containing higher levels of carcinogens. (NBC Nightly News, 2-14-2009)
Consistently being around secondhand smoke can be just as dangerous as smoking itself. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College and Cornell University have documented evidence of genetic changes in the airway cells of nonsmokers exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke. A study of 121 volunteers found that 11% of the genes known to respond to cigarette smoke in these cells were active in both smokers and nonsmokers alike. These changes could signal the molecular beginnings of lung disease and cancer. Moreover, previous studies have shown such genetic alterations may not be reversible even after smokers kick the habit. (Park, 2010)
While the dangers of secondhand smoke have become widely known, few people are familiar with the concept of thirdhand smoke. Jonathan Winickoff, assistant professor of pediatrics at Mass General Hospital for Children, coined the term ‘third-hand smoke’ to describe the toxic residues left behind by cigarette smoke. The contents of that white vapor that fills the air when someone is smoking doesn’t just magically disappear, despite appearances. It settles down into furniture, carpet, clothing, skin, and other hard or soft surfaces throughout the area. This creates an invisible toxic film of noxious chemicals.
These toxins can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed into the body through the skin. Because thirdhand smoke lingers on surfaces for weeks or even months, many believe exposure to it is even more harmful than first or secondhand smoke. (Winickoff et al., 2009) Furthermore, researchers at Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory found that the remnants of cigarette smoke can react with nitrous acid vapor, a chemical common to the environment that is emitted from gas appliances and vehicles, among other sources. This reaction produces carcinogenic compounds referred to as tobacco-specific nitrosamines, or TSNAs. (Harmon, 2010)
Is there a way to safely smoke around children?
For parents and other guests, smoking outside is always preferable to smoking inside. But this is no panacea. Toxic residues from cigarettes make their way into the clothing, hair and skin of smokers to be absorbed by the children they come into contact with, even if a parent never smokes in the house or near the children. (Painter, 3-16-2009) As noted on our smoking statistics page, even parents who smoke outside have children with 5-times the detectable levels of these toxins in their body, transferred from parent to child via the thirdhand smoke that settles onto their skin and clothing. So the only way to truly keep your children safe is by kicking the habit.
Smoking in the car
Smoking in the car is an especially toxic habit. “Studies demonstrate that the concentration of toxins in a smoke-filled car is 23-times greater than that of a smoky bar,” says Dr. Virginia Pressler, director of Hawaii’s Department of Health. (Lasquero, 2016) There’s also the fact that because a car is such a small enclosed space, the chemical residues from cigarette smoke settle into the seats and surfaces at much higher concentrations, leaving behind a thick film of thirdhand smoke. If you then use this same car to transport your children in, you’re going to expose them to high levels of harmful chemical toxins, even if you don’t smoke with them in the car.
What about vaping around children?
Vaping has been ushered in under the assumption that it’s a safer alternative to smoking. This is questionable, and I suspect it will go down in history as one of Big Tobacco’s most cunning and evil deceits. Tobacco usage rates were falling, and the cigarette companies were losing market share. Since the introduction of vaping, they’ve found a way to reinvigorate their industry with this new technological device, featuring sweet-tasting juices with names like “Gummy Bear” that has hooked a whole new generation of younger users.
The reality is that vaping juice contains most of the same chemicals as traditional cigarette smoke, and whether in smoke or vapor, these chemicals are breathed in by others nearby and will settle onto surfaces just the same. Taking away the burning removes some of the volatile organic compounds and fine particulate matter that are released by any sort of combustion, but these were hardly the only or most concerning aspect of cigarette smoke. Meanwhile, a Japanese study found that levels of hazardous substances were actually higher in e-cigarette vapor than in traditional cigarette smoke. (USA Today, 12-17-2014, p. 6A)
It remains to be seen whether vaping will even have a beneficial effect when it comes to reducing rates of lung cancer and other respiratory problems, since it isn’t entirely clear whether the smoke itself or the noxious chemicals it contains is what actually creates these problems. Until some strong independent research comes along that can confirm any benefits whatsoever from vaping, you need to treat it as no different than traditional cigarettes. (Unlike cigarettes, vaping juices also pose a more serious risk of acute toxicity, and can kill a small child who gets ahold of a bottle of vaping juice and drinks it.)