This just in: Watch out for third-hand smoke!

I’ve blogged before about my feelings and experiences on first- and second-hand tobacco smoke . . . but I have to admit I was kinda’ surprised this past week to learn there’s such a thing as third-hand smoke — tobacco smoke contamination that lingers in the environment after a cigarette has been extinguished.

A quick Google™ search reveals that many people, “particularly smokers, have no idea that third-hand smoke — the cocktail of toxins that linger in carpets, sofas, clothes and other materials hours or even days after a cigarette is put out — is a health hazard for infants and children.” In other words, long after the second-hand smoke has cleared.

In retrospect, I’ve known about third-hand smoke for a long time; I just didn’t know it was called that. For example, I’ve been requesting non-smoking rooms at hotels and motels for years, because there’s no question the smell of second-hand tobacco smoke can permeate a room . . . and it’s especially gross in a pillow. Now imagine that’s what infants and toddlers are breathing in when they crawl and play on carpets infused with third-hand smoke.

In another more recent example, I rented a car from a national chain where the contract spelled out that a hefty cleaning fee would be charged for those who smoked in the car. Very interesting, and yes, I also now request non-smoking rental cars.

The Google page I read indicated there are no studies yet that, unlike second-hand smoke, directly tie third-hand smoke to diseases. But you just gotta’ know it can’t be healthy, and it certainly doesn’t smell good. For example, in 2006 the U.S. Surgeon General reported “there is no risk-free level of tobacco exposure.” Likewise, there are studies that show little children “ingest twice the amount of dust that grown-ups do,” presumably from the same places where third-hand smoke residue lingers; and an experiment with rats shows “tobacco toxin exposure is the leading cause of sudden infant death syndrome.” In short, it’s probably unhealthy…and it’s certainly nasty.

More on the latter point: When I was a teenager, I got my first wage-paying job at Snelgrove’s Ice Cream on 2100 South in Salt Lake City, Utah. They had a sign right up front that asked customers to please not smoke inside, as the custom-made ice cream would absorb the odors and affect the taste . . . and it worked, even though this was long before there were anti-smoking laws for public places — even in predominantly Mormon Utah.

A few years later, however, I worked briefly as a dish washer at the Hotel Utah (now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building), and still remember how often I had to scrap plates and coffee cups that had been used as ash trays: I worked the early-morning shift, but a lot of the dishes were cleared from dinner the night before, so there was nothing like coming in and finding a cup, glass or plate filled with tobacco-steeped liquid. Eeeuw!

I know tobacco has a powerful hold on many people. I remember, for example, my Mormon Teacher’s quorum advisor telling us a story from his own boyhood days when he was a real cowboy riding herd for weeks at a time with an older man: One night he woke up and saw the other guy digging through the ashes of an old camp fire. When asked what he was doing, the guy admitted he had run out of cigarettes and was so desperate that he was looking for old butts he had thrown in the fireplace months ago.

No thanks. I’m glad smoking holds zero-appeal for me, and that I live in a nearly smoke-free environment most of the time; but we all need to recognize it’s still a problem…one that now exists on yet another level.


  1. Mike, I am very grateful for your “3rd-Hand Smoke” article! We all need to know that long after the smoker has departed the scene, the children (and let’s face it, the adults too) are subject to the toxic residues left behind on surfaces and in fabrics everywhere the smoker has been. Even if the smoker doesn’t have a cigarette in his hand at the moment! Blessings, Doc Meek, Sherwood Park, Alberta, CANADA, May 16, 2010

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