Study Highlights Potential Dangers of Thirdhand Smoke in Kids

It is well known that secondhand smoke can cause serious health problems in children. Yet about 40% of them are still exposed to tobacco. We see evidence of this in our own Emergency Department (ED). About 22% of total visits over a 13-month period were potentially caused by smoke-related illnesses.

The vast majority of smoking parents with whom I encounter in the ED are aware of the health issues it creates in kids and truly want to quit.

But the reality is that it’s hard. Many of them have tried multiple times and have been unable to do it. I’m hoping that my latest research findings may offer the extra ammo to finally do it. This research was recently published in the BMJ Journal Tobacco Control:

Our study showed that children may carry significant levels of nicotine on their hands just by coming into contact with items contaminated with tobacco smoke residue, even when no one is actively smoking around them.

So what do parents need to know about the dangers of thirdhand smoke in kids?

1. It’s on their hands.

And while the dangers of secondhand smoke are well documented, the effects of thirdhand smoke and kids is not well known. What we do know is that it produces a pollutant that stays on surfaces after smoking has occurred. We found a nicotine metabolite called cotinine in kids’ saliva, in addition to high levels of nicotine on their hands.

2. Exposure to these contaminants is harmful.

Respiratory and ear infections, and more frequent and severe asthma attacks, are all health problems associated with exposure to tobacco smoke. Kids who are exposed to tobacco have the metabolite cotinine in their saliva, urine, nails, hair, and blood. And when this happens, they have more visits to the doctor, more colds, coughs, infections, and worse asthma attacks.

3. Eliminating smoking around kids isn’t enough.

Our study suggests that children will still be exposed to nicotine when parents smoke inside or outside the home, even if the children aren’t there while they’re doing it. Thirdhand smoke accumulates in dust and on other surfaces, such as the clothes of the smoker, as well as household objects like toys.

4. Avoid smoking indoors.

The next best option to quitting smoking would be to ban smoking completely in the home and car. Have designated smoking clothes to leave outside before going back into the home. And take a shower. I realize that these steps seem like a lot of work. But besides quitting completely, they are the most effective ways that we know of right now to keep second and thirdhand smoke out of the home. Research will help us figure out other ways.

When I relay these research findings to smoking parents I meet, they are stunned that nicotine is on kids’ hands. And they’re even more surprised to learn that it’s in their saliva. Please share this information broadly so that more families are aware of the dangers of smoking even when kids aren’t around the smoke.

We plan to continue this research, looking into how much thirdhand smoke contributes to overall tobacco exposure in kids, and how this affects overall child health.

 

Melinda Mahabee-Gittens, MD

About the Author: Melinda Mahabee-Gittens, MD

Melinda Mahabee-Gittens, MD, MS, is an emergency medicine physician in the Emergency Department at Cincinnati Children’s. She has special interests in reducing pediatric secondhand and thirdhand smoke exposure, parental tobacco cessation and adolescent tobacco prevention. She became interested in this research area when she realized that many parents were aware of the effects of smoke exposure on their children and that they were interested in receiving help to quit smoking during their child’s emergency department visit.

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