Recent research about the dangers of third-hand smoke has many parents questioning the safety of the toys their children play with. When tobacco smoke seeps into household fabrics and surfaces, it does more than leave an odor behind. Some researchers say the residue reacts with particles in the air to create cancer-causing compounds that can remain on clothes, blankets, toys, drapes and carpet for months. This could cause concern among families with lots of hand-me-down children's items or second-hand purchases.
In January 2009, a study revealed that leftover tobacco residue - dubbed "third-hand smoke" - contains 250 toxins including lead, cyanide and arsenic. Harvard Cancer Center pediatrican Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, who authored the original study published in the January issue of Pediatrics, wrote that third-hand smoke is particularly hazardous to infants and small children, given that those toxins have been proven to cause lower IQs and cancer in children.
In addition, children are at a much higher risk than adults to inhale third-hand smoke, according to a January 2009 Scientific American article featuring Dr. Winickoff. For one, he says, children ingest twice the amount of dust particles as adults, partly because they spend so much time on the floor, exploring their surroundings. Secondly, infants and children frequently put toys, blankets and household items in their mouths. And, lastly, children's developing brains are more susceptible to even the lowest level of toxins.
This month, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) echoes Dr. Winickoff's study, showing that when residual nicotine reacts with nitrious acid that's in the air, it creates potent carcinogens that fans and fresh air can't eliminate. The PNAS study shows exposure happens when someone inhales dust or allows their skin to touch carpet, clothes or toys that contain third-hand smoke.
Meanwhile, in a New Scientist article published today, Stephen Hecht of the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota says the buzz about third-hand smoke could be an overreaction, citing that there's no direct evidence yet that chemicals formed in this way have proved harmful. He told New Scientist, "I personally feel that exposure by this route would be minimal, but the studies need to be carried out."
For now, how can parents minimize their children's exposure to potentially-hazardous third-hand smoke? Consider these tips:
- Do not allow smoking inside the home
- Make sure your child's daycare complies with the Minnesota's Freedom to Breathe in Family Day Car Law
- Think twice about scheduling playdates at the homes of friends or family members who smoke.
- If you find a public, indoor children's activity area or store that does not comply with Minnesota's non-smoking laws, you can submit this letter of complaint to the state
- Before buying dolls, stuffed animals, play mats, blankets or soft toys at garage sales or consignment shops, ask if items have come from smoke-free homes
- Thoroughly wash and disinfect any toys that may have been exposed to tobacco smoke