We’re hearing a lot about the increased use of smoking in teenagers, and it may be time to review what third-hand smoke is and what its harmful effects are. Everyone has experienced third-hand smoke. It’s when you step into an elevator and it smells as if someone has just lit up a cigarette, but there’s no one there.

Third-hand smoke is tobacco smoke contamination that remains after the cigarette has been extinguished. Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, has published this aspect of the dangers of cigarette smoking in “Pediatrics,” a respected pediatric journal. According to the study, a large number of people, particularly smokers, have no idea that third-hand smoke, a mixture of toxins that linger in carpets, sofas, clothes and other materials hours and even days after the cigarette is put out, is a health hazard for infants and children. Third-hand smoke refers to the tobacco toxins that build up over time. One cigarette coats the room; a second adds another coat, and so on. The smaller the room and the larger the number of cigarettes increase the level of the toxins. In a tiny space like a car the deposition is really heavy. Smokers themselves are also contaminated. Smokers actually emit toxins from their clothing and hair.

The 2006 surgeon general’s report says there’s no risk-free level of tobacco exposure. There are 250 poisonous toxins in cigarette smoke. One of these toxins is lead, which it has been shown that very tiny levels of exposure are associated with lowered IQ. There’s also cyanide and arsenic in third-hand smoke.

Infants and children are much more susceptible to third-hand smoke as the developing brain is more at risk, their small size makes the dose of ingested toxins more dangerous and they are closer to the floors and put everything in their mouths.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following:

• Hire only nonsmoking baby sitters and care providers.

• If smokers visit your home, store their belongings out of your children’s reach.

• Never smoke in your children’s presence or in areas where they spend a lot of time, including your home and car.

• If you smoke, quit. Talk to your doctor to learn about resources and support networks. Some of the resources are the American Lung Association, www.lungusa.org; The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Smoke-Free Homes program, www.epa.gov/smokefree; and Clinical Effort Against Secondhand Smoke Exposure, www.ceasetobacco.org. Another helpful source is Tips from Former Smokers (CDC.gov).

Quitting is the best thing you can do for yourself, your friends and your family.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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