I recently went house hunting with my niece, Heather, and her fiancé. We walked through one house with a good floor plan and began to notice what needed to be done. The kitchen needed appliances, the kitchen cabinets were too low, and one bathroom needed work. It all seemed do-able to them, but I disagreed. I had detected a dangerous problem that they had overlooked. The house reeked of stale cigarette smoke, and this was a more serious problem than they realized.
First-hand smoke is what you inhale when you are the one who is smoking cigarettes. Second-hand smoke is what you inhale from someone else’s cigarettes. Third-hand smoke is the residue that sticks to walls, floors, and carpeting in cars and buildings. And third-hand smoke is not just smelly.
When tobacco smoke clings to walls and other surfaces, it’s not just a matter of unpleasant odors. This third-hand smoke is downright dangerous. It can cause cancer. And it’s difficult to remove. You can’t just wash the walls and ceiling.
Here’s what’s happening.
When nicotine from cigarette smoke sticks to a surface, it reacts with nitrous acid — a common indoor air pollutant — to produce potent carcinogens. You need both nicotine residue and nitrous acid to form these dangerous cancer-causing chemicals called TSNAs (tobacco-specific nitrosamines). The second-hand smoke that wafts in the air from one cigarette contains around 100 nanograms of TSNAs. But when the nicotine and nitrous acid join on surfaces, the combination creates several hundred nanograms of TSNAs.
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The main source of indoor nitrous acid comes from unvented gas appliances. Make sure your gas heater and gas stove are well-ventilated. This reduces half of the problem.
Avoid contact with smokers whenever you can, even if they smoke outdoors. Nicotine residues stick to their skin and clothes. They follow the smoker into your home or car, where they remain and can contaminate all surfaces.
Whenever possible, avoid exposing babies, children, and older adults to second and third-hand smoke.
One final note: The only way to get rid of the carcinogen in a building is to replace the carpets, wallboards, and flooring. It can cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Heather and her fiancé didn’t have to worry about this. Someone who didn’t know about the dangers of third-hand smoke out-bid them for the smelly house.
Your voice of reason in Women's Health,
Dr. Janet Zand