Thirdhand smoke is the contamination left behind following an extinguished cigarette. It’s what lingers in furniture, carpets, and yes, clothes, for hours, days and sometimes longer if you have someone in your home who continuously partakes in smoking. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a pack of Camels and Virginia Slims or e-cigarettes with a cherry flavor. “It’s the same,” says Eric Presser, M.D., a thoracic surgeon, associate professor with the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine and author of An Empowering Guide to Lung Cancer: Six Steps to Taking Charge of Your Care and Your Life. “It’s the same effects and a lot of the same toxins. The only thing we should be breathing is air.”
We talked to Presser about this growing problem since November is lung cancer awareness month. We inquired about what can be done to deal with thirdhand smoke when we have smokers in our families and even in our homes. The simple answer is, they need to quit. But in case it’s not that easy (and it rarely is), here’s why you need to make sure you’re putting your health, and the health of your children, first.
MadameNoire: Lung cancer is the no. 1 cancer killer right now. We talk a lot about breast cancer, pancreatic cancers and how to raise awareness, but we underestimate this one because we believe that when you get lung cancer, it’s a choice. You chose to smoke or be around someone who smokes. Tell us why thirdhand smoke proves it’s not always that black and white and what we should know about lung cancer in general.
Eric Presser, M.D.: When you look at the statistics, there are about 225,000 new lung cancer cases each year with about 165,000 deaths. You’re correct as far as lung cancer being the no.1 cancer killer, not only in the United States but also in the world. And one of the points you touched upon is the stigma of lung cancer with smoking. One in six smokers will get lung cancer. We know that. And people say, “That person had lung cancer. They deserved it.” That’s really the attitude. And what people don’t understand is that up to 15 percent of non-smokers get lung cancer. So what that means is that there has to be a genetic component, possibly mixed in with exposure to secondhand smoke, and in doing years of what I do, including research for my book as a thoracic surgeon, thirdhand smoke pops up. What’s important about thirdhand smoke is that it’s relatively recent as far as research is concerned. And if you had to define thirdhand smoke, it’s actually tobacco smoke contamination that remains after the cigarette has been extinguished. Studies have shown that when you ask smokers and nonsmokers if secondhand smoke is detrimental, they’ll say yes. Because they can see it. But if you ask the same question — I believe there was a study done in 2009 where 65 percent of smokers said that if the smoke has left the room, it it harmful? They said no. What it means is that people are just not educated. And the reason this has become such a big deal is because when you have thirdhand smoke, it sticks around. The cocktail of toxins lingers in carpets and sofas and clothes, hair. The reason that’s important is because children are exposed. When you take the child’s developing brain, which is uniquely susceptible to these toxins, and you expose them, a lot of people don’t realize what’s going on.
Is there anything that can be done about it? As for people who’ve smoked for years and have kids, can they air out their homes and all will be well? Basically, can anything be done after exposure has happened?
No smoking. Honestly, there’s not enough research right now, but it’s a little bit of common sense. So the best way to describe it is, if you have a closed place like a car. You smoke one cigarette, it coats the surface of the car. You smoke another cigarette, it acts like a second coat if you will. Obviously, the smaller the space, the more effect you’re going to have and the more toxic residue is going to remain behind. Going back to what I mentioned before, a lot of people, for example, people who smoke in their home, they think that once they air out a room that the toxins are gone and it’s not detrimental or harmful. But what we’re now learning is that it is. I’ll give you a great example. I just went away with my family and we stayed in a place in Vegas. We requested a non-smoking suite and when we got there, the smoke is amazing from the casinos. My kids were walking with their shirts over their faces. So when we finally got up to our room, we called down and we said, “How come everything smells like smoke?” And they said, because the suites are smoking optional. I can’t tell you how upset I was because I would never — especially knowing what I know — expose my family to thirdhand smoke, because that’s what it was. You couldn’t see any smoke, but the stench, the smell, it was horrible. They said, “We’ll bring up these ozone machines,” but it doesn’t take it out of the carpet. It doesn’t take it out of the curtains. It just tries to get rid of the smell. It’s like using Lysol or Febreeze. It’s actually just masking what’s going on. So the problem is that we don’t know what the actual exposures are because in 2006, the surgeon general’s report said there’s no risk-free level of tobacco exposure. No one knows how much exposure is going to cause carcinogen or mutations that are causing carcinogenetic effects.
Adults who expose ourselves. We go to bars, clubs, people’s homes, hang with family and friends. Sometimes we’re around people who have smoked and then stood in our presence or are smoking in their house. How can we take better precautions when around these family members, friends and places?
The only way is complete avoidance. And sometimes that means you might be a social outcast if you will, but if you actually care about what you’re breathing in, you’ll excuse yourself. Whenever I see patients and one of them smokes, they’ll say, “But I smoke outside.” That’s fine. When you smoke outside you’re not exposing your partner to the obvious secondhand smoke. But I explained to them that when they do come inside, it’s in their hair, it’s in their clothes. It’s one of the reasons people get mesothelioma years later. The man would work and be exposed to asbestos. He would come home and the woman would do the laundry and then be exposed to the asbestos in the clothes. So that’s the same concept. The only way to truly answer that question is to say you have to take yourself completely out of the equation. If you are around someone that is smoking, you have to get away from that person. If you live with someone that smokes, you have to insist that they smoke outside and hopefully they come inside, change their clothes and shower. But right now we don’t have enough research like we have with secondhand smoke. We do know that it’s detrimental to our health. And one of the reasons it’s such a big deal is because our children are exposed and people don’t realize it.