Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Third Hand Smoke: An invisible enemy

By Lulu Dumlao

Wena (not her real name), 24 is a self confessed heavy smoker. She got pregnant when she was 21 and decided to quit smoking because she knew that it would bring harm to the baby in her womb.

But after Miggy (not his real name), now 3 years old, was born, Wena admitted that she missed the taste of cigarettes. “I wasn’t able to control myself, so I started smoking again. But only outside the house." Wena said that she is familiar with second hand smoking that is why she never smokes when Miggy is around. But she also admitted that she has not heard about third hand smoke.

We are all familiar with the effects of cigarettes to those who smoke. Also, it is known to us that even non-smokers are gravely affected by inhaling the smoke that came from lit cigarettes. But unlike first hand and second hand smoking, third hand smoke occurs after a smoker puts out his/her cigarette.

What is Third Hand Smoke?

Third hand smoke is the invisible toxic brew of residue left on long after the cigarette has been extinguished. It usually sticks on people’s hair, skin, and clothes. Third hand smoke also lingers on floors, wallpapers, carpets, furniture, et cetera. When you enter a room, elevator, hall or any confined space and smelled a faint scent of cigarette, that’s third hand smoke.

According to studies made in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, burning tobacco releases vapors of nicotine that can be easily absorbed by indoor surfaces. Nicotine can stay on those surfaces for days, weeks and even months.

Scientists have been aware that when tobacco smoke sticks to surfaces, it may have reactions to some chemicals. But they may have overlooked the possibility that residual smoke components may have reactions with the molecules in the air and can be harmful pollutants. After further experimentations about the said possibility, chemists in Berkeley Laboratory found out that cigarette smoke reacts with one chemical—nitrous acid.

The reaction of cigarette smoke with nitrous acid forms carcinogenic tobacco-specific nitrosamines or TSNAs. TSNAs are abundantly carcinogenic and individuals exposed to it are at a higher risk of having cancer.

Hazards of Third Hand Smoke on Babies

Surely, parents would never smoke in front of their babies; they are surely familiar with the dangers of second hand smoking. But these parents may take cigarette breaks during office hours or after a meal at home. Even if they limit smoking outside their houses, the possibility of bringing harmful toxins home does not slide down. TSNAs stick onto the hair, skin, and clothes of these parents. And when they cuddle their babies—is when the real harm begins.

Children are more susceptible to the harm of third hand smoke than adults. Babies and toddlers still crawl and they like putting things inside their mouths, making them more exposed to TSNAs stuck on the floor, furniture, and other things inside their houses. Also, due to the small size of babies they are at a higher risk of getting sick.

According to Dr. Henry Laforteza, a pediatrician, the immune system of a baby is still immature and it may mistake smoke components for harmful germs and attack them; an inflammatory process that causes bronchitis or asthma, begins. The other harmful components of third hand smoke may interfere to the development of a baby’s nervous system. And since babies will be exposed to carcinogens in such an early age, their risk of getting cancer is increased.

Keep Your Kids Safe

After some explanations about third hand smoke, Wena realized that it might be the reason why Miggy always gets coughs. She admitted that she did not realize that even if Miggy is not exposed to cigarette smoke, he can still be harmed. She promised to herself that even if it is difficult to let go of her vice, she will do it for her little boy.

The best way to avoid the harmful effects of smoking is to quit. Especially to those people who have kids in their homes. Parents should also always put in mind that even if cigarette smoke is not visible, the harmful chemicals from it can just be in the surfaces inside their homes. To keep the kids safe, parents should keep their houses and vehicles free from tobacco smoke. Smoking should never be an option for parents. And there is no such thing as worry-free or guilt-free smoking. For babies, third hand smoke is definitely dangerous; especially the harmful substance is invisible. Parents, always guarantee that you are smoke-free. You never know, third hand smoke might just be stuck on your hair, skin, or clothes.

(Lulu Dumlao is a freelance writer. She is currently enrolled at the BS Development Communication program, Major in Development Journalism at the University of the Philippines at Los BaƱos.)

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