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We know that secondhand smoke is bad, but what about thirdhand smoke?

We’ve known for decades that cigarette smoking deadly. But tobacco has been around for eons, growing wild in the Americas for nearly 8,000 years. According to the Cancer Council, around 2,000 years ago tobacco began to be chewed and smoked during cultural or religious ceremonies and events.

But smoking tobacco in manufactured cigarettes is a fairly recent phenomenon. As reported in the British Medical Journal, mechanization and targeted marketing of tobacco towards the end of the 19th century was diabolically effective, with countless people taking up the habit, which caused a global epidemic of lung cancer, previously a rare disease. Lung cancer was not even recognized medically until the 18th century and was not linked to smoking until 1912.

The BMJ points to the cigarette manufacturers’ concerted efforts to “propogandise the public” and as late as the 1960s only a third of US doctors believed that there was a link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

Big tobacco thrives off deception and very clever marketing

Referred to as “the deadliest artifact in the history of human civilization,” Approximately 6.5 trillion cigarettes are sold around the world each year or roughly 18 billion cigarettes per day. Today, although the deadly effects of tobacco are known and most industrialized countries have put limits on public use, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that smoking is on the rise again, but this time in developing countries.

But why, if we know smoking causes cancer, do people continue to smoke?

Besides marketing, another reason that makes quitting tobacco is that nicotine is so addictive. As reported in Swedish.org, “Research has suggested that nicotine is equally as addictive as heroin, cocaine, and alcohol.”

Consuming nicotine (through smoking tobacco or vaping nicotine — more below) leads to the release of dopamine in the human brain, which ‘teaches’ the brain to repeat the same behavior. Read more about nicotine addiction here.

According to the WHO (July 2019):

  • Tobacco kills up to half of its users.
  • Tobacco kills more than 8 million people each year
  • More than 7 million cancer deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Around 80% of the world’s 1.1 billion smokers live in low- and middle-income countries.

The Pan American Health Association reports 342,518 new cases of lung cancer in 2018.

  • Almost half of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are attributable to smoking and five percent to secondhand smoke.
  • In Latin America 2017, 243,000 new cases of tuberculosis were registered and 15 percent of TB deaths due to smoking.
  • Approximately 13,000 people died from asthma — 12 percent due to smoking.
Passive smoking has been linked to heart disease, respiratory illness, and lung cancer.

Secondhand smoke kills

According to the CDC, there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke and:

  • Secondhand smoke causes numerous health problems in infants and children, including more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Smoking during pregnancy results in more than 1,000 infant deaths annually.
  • Health conditions caused by secondhand smoke in adults include coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.
  • Secondhand smoke causes lung cancer in adults who have never smoked.

And what about thirdhand smoke?

The Mayo Clinic reports, “Thirdhand smoke is residual nicotine and other chemicals left on indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke. People are exposed to these chemicals by touching contaminated surfaces or breathing in the off-gassing from these surfaces. This residue is thought to react with common indoor pollutants to create a toxic mix including cancer-causing compounds, posing a potential health hazard to nonsmokers —, especially children.

Thirdhand smoke is the tobacco pollution that persists in the air and on surfaces after smoking has stopped.

Thirdhand smoke clings to clothes, furniture, drapes, walls, bedding, carpets, dust, vehicles and other surfaces long after smoking has stopped. The residue from thirdhand smoke builds up on surfaces over time. To remove the residue, hard surfaces, fabrics, and upholstery need to be regularly cleaned or laundered. Thirdhand smoke can’t be eliminated by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air conditioners, or confining smoking to only certain areas of a home.

Children and nonsmoking adults might be at risk of tobacco-related health problems when they inhale, swallow or touch substances containing thirdhand smoke. Infants and young children might have increased exposure to thirdhand smoke due to their tendency to mouth objects and touch affected surfaces.”

And what about your furry friends?
And who else is at risk? Dr. Ernie Ward, DVM, writes in Pet Health Network that, “Our pet’s peril doesn’t end when the smoker snubs out their tobacco and blows their last smoky sigh. It persists when they pounce on the couch, roll on the carpet, and sleep in their beds. The risk of cancer is nearly everywhere, on every surface and even has a new name, thirdhand smoke.”

Dr. Teresa Lightfoot, doctor of veterinarian medicine and diplomate in avian practice (and Cuenca expat) says that pets are especially vulnerable to second and thirdhand smoke. ” Dogs exposed to second and thirdhand smoke are prone to skin irritation, respiratory infections, and nasal cancer. Cats’ asthma (a common condition in cats) is exacerbated from secondhand smoke, and skin irritation from second and thirdhand smoke is often noted. Birds get oral and nasal cancer, fungal lung infections, feather destructive behavior and self-mutilation, and fatal atherosclerosis.”

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) reports, “Like children, dogs and cats spend most of their time on or near the floor, where the tobacco smoke compounds concentrate in house dust, carpets, and rugs. Dogs, cats, and children can absorb these compounds through their skin and inhale them in contaminated house dust or as ultra-fine particles and gases that were released back into the air.

Pets can also ingest tobacco smoke compounds by licking their owner’s hair, skin, and clothes. You can think of a pet owner who smokes as another “surface” that thirdhand smoke can stick to. Even if pet owners go outside to smoke, when they come back into the house, the thirdhand smoke comes with them.”

The FDA reports that long-nosed breeds like Greyhounds and Dobermans who live with smokers have a doubled risk of nose cancer because their noses act as filters and smoke particles get trapped in their noses. Short and medium-nosed breeds like Pugs, Bulldogs, and Beagles have a higher risk of lung cancer since fewer smoke particles are filtered out in their snub noses and go straight into their lungs, increasing their risk.

Cats are constantly grooming themselves and those living in a smoking household have two-to-four times increased risk of aggressive mouth cancer. Cats also have three times the risk of lymphoma — typical survival time after diagnosis is six months, even with surgery and chemotherapy.

Pet birds are very sensitive to air pollution, especially tobacco smoke, and thirdhand smoke is especially problematic. Like cats, birds groom or “preen” themselves, ingesting thirdhand smoke that coasts their feathers. Some pet birds will perch on their owner’s shoulders or hands and absorb toxic particles through their feet or by preening their owner’s hands and ingesting the particles.

Dr. Lightfoot says, “When I left practice in 2014, I had 17 avian patients undergoing chemo and radiation therapy for squamous cell carcinoma of their sinuses or oropharyngeal areas. Of these – 16 were in smoking households, and one was a recent rescue with an unknown history. I also treated hundreds of birds for feather destructive behavior, which often progressed to self-mutilation. The most common environmental precipitating factors: perfumes, other aerosols, hand creams from contact with owners, and cigarette smoke.

African Grey parrots, in particular, were prone to both the cutaneous effects of thirdhand smoke, and the respiratory and cardiac effects of secondhand smoke. Sudden death due to atherosclerosis is a very common cause of death in mature African Gray parrots. The link to aerosol irritants, including tobacco smoke, is being investigated and is considered likely (although diet is also a major factor in this syndrome).”

And what about pet fish, guinea pigs, rabbits, and rats? The FDA reports that all are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of thirdhand smoke. As I’m writing this I’m thinking, what about pet reptiles? Snakes, lizards, and turtles? I imagine they suffer too.

Is vaping safer than cigarettes?

We know those cigarette manufacturers have long-term strategies to grow their business, and killing off their customers at a rate of 10 million yearly is somewhat problematic. That’s where vaping comes in.

The tobacco merchants are the biggest investors in vaping devices, marketed as a “safe” alternative to cigarettes. Altria, the US owner of the Marlboro brand, and Phillip Morris, the tobacco company that owns the rights to sell Marlboro and other cigarette brands overseas, are big into e-cigarettes. Altria is a top investor in Juul Labs, which holds 75 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market.

E-cigarette users are under the unproven claims that “vapor” is harmless, or is somehow less deadly. Don’t believe it. I’ve written about vaping previously, but don’t take my word for it. As the American Heart Association writes, “Anyone who says vaping is safe is just blowing smoke. Vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling the aerosol, often referred to as vapor, which is produced by an e-cigarette or similar device. The term is used because e-cigarettes do not produce tobacco smoke, but rather an aerosol, often mistaken for water vapor, that actually consists of fine particles. Many of these particles contain varying amounts of toxic chemicals, which have been linked to heart and respiratory diseases and cancer.”

Dr. Stanton Glantz, Director for the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco says, “ If you are around somebody who is using e-cigarettes, you are breathing an aerosol of exhaled nicotine, ultra-fine particles, volatile organic compounds, and other toxins.”

Federal and state authorities recommend avoiding all vaping until more is known. If you do decide to vape, definitely avoid e-cigarettes bought “off the street” and stick with brand name e-cigarette products without modification (such as adding marijuana or other drugs). It appears that Vitamin E acetate, an ingredient added to illicit cannabis vaping liquids, may be causative.

The Harvard Health Letter writes,

These cases of severe lung disease among people who vape raise important questions about the safety of vaping.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that lung problems might develop in people who vape: our lungs were meant to inhale clean air and nothing else. It took many years to recognize the damage cigarettes can cause. We could be on a similar path with vaping.

If you love your pets, your children, your partner, and yourself, get help quitting nicotine, in any form. You can do it! Nicotine is out of your body 72 hours after you quit smoking (or vaping). Most people start to feel better after one week, and symptoms of withdrawal like irritability and headaches are usually gone within three months. Quitting means saving a boatload of money, and saving your health.

Sources:
BMJ Journals: Tobacco Control. The history of the discovery of the cigarette-lung cancer link: evidentiary traditions, corporate denial, global toll.
Cancer Council. A brief history of smoking.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Smoking & Tobacco Use. Health effects of secondhand smoke.
CNN Business. Altria made a big bet on vaping. Will it still pan out?
Food & Drug Administration: Animal Health Literacy. Be smoke-free and help your pets live longer, healthier lives.
Harvard Health Letter. Can vaping damage your lungs? What we do (and don’t) know.
Mayo Clinic.: Adult Health. What is thirdhand smoke, and why is it a concern?
Pet Health Network. What “thirdhand” smoke can do to your pet.
Swedish.org. Nicotine dependence: how does it happen?
Vets Now. E-cigarettes may be ‘less harmful’ for humans but are they safe for dogs?
World Atlas: Society. Which countries smoke the most cigarettes?
World Health Organization. Tobacco [26 July 2019)

5 thoughts on “We know that secondhand smoke is bad, but what about thirdhand smoke?

  1. Great and comprehensive article from Susan as usual. Thanks for reiterating the factual literature regarding perhaps the most costly, unhealthy, and selfish habit that is legally available.

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