Babies Are at Highest Risk from Thirdhand Smoke

You know that smoking is bad for you and your baby. A recent, frightening study found that even one cigarette a day during pregnancy can double the risk of sudden infant death. You also know that second-hand smoke is bad for babies and children. You would not smoke near your child or let anyone else smoke near you child.

But here is another frightening thought. A 2018 study from Penn State University found that 15 percent of children, including children as young as 6 months, had nicotine levels detected in saliva that were the same as an adult smoker. Out of the 1,200 children tested, sixty-three percent had some significant level of nicotine.

The researchers believe that a major contributor for nicotine levels in babies and toddlers is thirdhand smoke from cigarettes or electronic nicotine devices (vaping). Thirdhand smoke is the residue from smoking that collects in dust and on the surfaces of carpets, upholstery, and basically any surface where someone has smoked. The residue may be left over from smoking that occurred many weeks or months ago. Babies and toddlers are at highest risk because they crawl on the floor, touch surfaces, and put hands in mouth.

Thirdhand smoke also collects on people. It becomes stuck to their skin, clothes, and hair. If a smoker holds your child, your child may be exposed. Smoking outside the house does not prevent exposure.

More evidence of the danger from thirdhand smoke comes from a 2017 study published in the journal Tobacco Control. Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital tested children who came to the emergency room with symptoms that could be caused by exposure to secondhand smoke, such as upper respiratory infection or difficulty breathing.

Children were tested if they had a smoking parent. The average age of the children was 5 years. The researchers swabbed the children’s hands for evidence of nicotine from thirdhand smoke. Twenty-four out of 25 children tested had nicotine detected on their hands.

How Dangerous Is Thirdhand Smoke for Children?

As mentioned before, infants and toddlers are at highest risk from thirdhand smoke. In animal studies, thirdhand smoke has been linked to lung cancer. Thirdhand smoke contains more than 250 chemicals. Children breathe in these chemical or ingest them from the residue on their hands when they place their hands in their mouths or from objects they put in their mouths.

In children, thirdhand smoke exposure has been linked to coughing, colds, asthma, and upper airway infections. Researchers just don’t know how dangerous it is for a six-month-old child to have levels of nicotine similar to an adult smoker, nobody has anticipated that.

What You Need to Do to Protect Your Child

The obvious first step is to quit smoking and prevent anyone from smoking in your house or in your car, even when your children are not there. Even that may not be enough. If you move into a house or stay in house or any lodging where smoking has occurred in the past 6 months your child may be at risk. One study found that even 6 months after moving out, thirdhand smoke could still be detected in homes of smokers. The thirdhand smoke that seeps into carpets, floors, or insulation in homes can be very hard to get rid of. This is also true for cars. It may take a professional cleaning job.

Finally, the only way to prevent exposure from thirdhand smoke on smokers is to keep them away from your children. Caregivers for your child should probably not be smokers. Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital suggest asking smokers who enter your child’s environment to change their clothes and take a shower first. That sounds harsh, but in light of the recent studies, it is not unreasonable. It would be a lot easier if everyone would just quit smoking.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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