It’s easy for me as a teacher to tell whose parents smoke. All it takes is one walk over to the coat area, where the fumes linger in the classroom. Or when I am working one on one with a student, crunching numbers in math. The smell always makes my stomach turn, then I feel overwhelmed with sadness for the child.
Smoke on clothing, carpets and furniture is much more than a nasty smell, however. According to the New York Times, the smoke is a toxic brew of “heavy metals, carcinogens and even radioactive materials that young children can get on their hands and ingest, especially if they’re crawling or playing on the floor.”
Researchers have labeled it “third hand smoke.” What exactly is it? According to the Scientific American, “”Third-hand smoke is tobacco smoke contamination that remains after the cigarette has been extinguished,” says Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at the Dana–Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston and author of a study on the new phenomenon published in the journal Pediatrics.”
The study was published in this month’s issue of the Journal Pediatrics the risks third hand smoke poses to infants and children. Researchers found out that less than half of smokers thought that breathing in a room where people smoked the day before is harmful to children.
Researchers also describe the brain’s reaction to the smell of cigarette smoke as a safety response. Just ask me about a trip we took to a hotel in Montreal. They mistakenly gave us a smoking room, with a dingy, old lady smell. My daughter was extremely uncomfortable and unsettled (screaming, that is, for hours). We left in the middle of the night to drive home because she was inconsolable. Her 2 year old brain knew it wasn’t okay for her to be there (despite our hotel reservation and weekend plans).
According to the New York Times article, “Among the substances in third-hand smoke are hydrogen cyanide, used in chemical weapons; butane, which is used in lighter fluid; toluene, found in paint thinners; arsenic; lead; carbon monoxide; and even polonium-210, the highly radioactive carcinogen that was used to murder former Russian spy Alexander V. Litvinenko in 2006. Eleven of the compounds are highly carcinogenic.”
Third hand smoke, according to this article by the Scientific American, is dangerous because there is “no risk free level of tobacco exposure. There are 250 poisonous toxins found in cigarette smoke. One such substance is lead. Very good studies show that tiny levels of exposure are associated with diminished IQ.”
Yep, you read that right. Lead in cigarette smoke. I knew about the arsenic and other carcinogenic chemicals, but I didn’t know about the lead. The Scientific American article goes on to describe why infants and children are at such a risk from third hand smoke. They are always on the floor, and putting things in their mouths, so they ingest twice as much dust as adults do. And of course their size and constant development put make them more vulnerable to toxins as well.
This study and term has the ability to change behaviors of smoking and non-smoking parents and that is good. No child should be exposed to such a harmful and toxic stew of chemicals.
Image: coffee & cigarettes. by P.Retuta on Flickr under Creative Commons