“Third-hand smoke”

A new term “third-hand smoke” has been coined by researchers from MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston, in a study published in the January 2009 issue of Pediatrics Journal. The journal article entitled, ‘Beliefs About the Health Effects of “Thirdhand” Smoke and Home Smoking Bans’ defines thirdhand smoke as residual tobacco smoke contamination that remains after the cigarette is extinguished.

The researchers emphasize that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke and warn that children are uniquely susceptible to third-hand smoke exposure.

According to the study conclusion:

“This study demonstrated that beliefs about the health effects of thirdhand smoke are independently associated with home smoking bans. Emphasizing that thirdhand smoke harms the health of children may be an important element in encouraging home smoking bans. Health messages about thirdhand smoke contamination could be easily incorporated into current tobacco control campaigns, programs, and routine clinical practice.”

17 Responses

  1. I am so tired of the manipulation by tobacco control with their unscientific studies. It is bordering on the absolute ridiculous.

    Please read entire article.


  2. This is one of the few accurate articles I’ve seen on this “study.” The researchers did absolutely no new research on the health effects of smoke or even “third hand smoke” on children or anyone else. They simply utilized an opinion survey and determined that people who are really paranoid about smoke in the most microscopic amounts are the ones most likely to ban smoking in their homes. They then went on to point out how such beliefs (no matter HOW crazy – though of course they didn’t say this) could be used to pressure smokers into quitting.

    The researchers also seemed to play up the “deadly toxins” rhetoric in their statements to such an extent that the New York Times felt quite comfortable about highlighting the threat to children from the “deadly radiation” in tobacco smoke that was used to kill a Russion KGB agent a few years ago.

    The Times neglected to mention that even the most extreme floor-licking child would have to lick floors for literally three trillion years in order to receive the deadly KGB dose.

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

  3. Editors: documentation on the three trillion year claim:

    Let me take one particularly important and egregious example: the January 2nd New York Times article on this research. The article reserves the spotlight closing paragraph of the article to provide the obligatory listing of nasty things found in standard cigarette smoke along with descriptive phraseology (e.g. “hydrogen cyanide, found in chemical weapons; butane, which is used in lighter fluid”). It finishes with one element particularly designed to terrorize parents in today’s world, “polonium-210 (Po210), the highly radioactive carcinogen that was used to murder former Russian spy Alexander V. Litvinenko in 2006.”

    After reading such an article, what decent parent would allow smoking in their home, even if their children were not present. To go beyond that, what decent parent would even allow their children to associate with children of known smokers or allow smoking granny to stop in for Christmas and irradiate their children with the offgassing of KGB murder weapons? The claims, if true, would go far beyond reducing simple in-home smoking, they would drive deep and destructive wedges into our fundamental social fabric.

    Still, if true, perhaps the damage would be worth it. But are they true? Or are they the modern equivalent of the “yellow journalism” that has driven our society to irrational actions and even war in times past? I believe the latter is the truth. Since the Times chose to emphasize it in such scary terms, let’s take a look at this KGB killer highlighted in their story, the radioactive Po210.

    Some elementary research tells us that the Russian was murdered by a dose thought to be about 5 millicuries while a smoker smoking a half pack of cigarettes per day ingests roughly a half picocurie of this element. At typical nonsmoker living or working would likely get roughly a hundredth of the smoker’s dose, or about 5 femtocuries per day. A millicurie is a thousand microcuries, a million nanocuries, a billion picocuries, or a trillion femtocuries.

    It would take that nonsmoker a trillion days to absorb the dose that killed the Russian.

    Of course that’s secondhand smoke. What about our children and this “third-hand smoke”? A reasonable estimate for the amount remaining stuck to the 10,000 square feet of walls, ceilings, furniture, floors, and draperies in a reasonably ventilated 2,000+ square foot home would almost certainly be less than 1%, but let’s assume that 1% actually does remain and spreads out over that 10,000 square feet of surface. With ten cigarettes having been smoked while the child was at school and the house then thoroughly aired out, we’d then have 1% of a half picocurie (i.e. 5 femtocuries) spread over that surface.

    Let us suppose that your child has a “floor-licking fixation” and licks an entire 10 sqare feet of floor sparkly clean every day while your back is turned. That child will then have licked 1/1,000th of those 5 femtocuries into his system: 5 “attocuries.”

    So, how long would it take such a child to get the “killing dose” of the murdered Russian featured in the Times?

    In 1,000 days your child would have licked up 5 femtocuries.

    In one million days, 5 picocuries.

    In one billion days, 5 nanocuries.

    In one trillion days, 5 microcuries.

    It would take one quadrillion days (2.74 trillion years) for that child to absorb 5 millicuries.

    Unfortunately the universe is only 10 billion years old, so the child would have to lick floors for 274 cycles of our expanding universe to match our radioactive Russian.

    Of course since he’d normally excrete most of that polonium we’d have to refuse to change his diaper until the end of that period… not a very pleasant thought.

    And then there’s that whole annoying fact that the half life of polonium is only 138 days, so we’d just have to ignore the laws of physics as well in justifying the Times’ comparison.

    Even if someone wanted to quibble with these estimates, changing 1% to 10%, or 10 square feet to 100, or 10 cigarettes to 100 cigarettes per day… or even ALL THREE in attacking this argument… we’d STILL be talking three billion years of exposure along with a suspension of the basic laws of biology and physics.

    Other elements in “third-hand smoke” might be somewhat more concentrated, but still nothing that wouldn’t demand hundred, thousands, or millions of years of assiduous tongue-licking and total constipation. Dr. Kabat’s central point, the undesirability of confusing the science around smoking with the almost superstitious concern about such nonsensical concepts as “third-hand smoke” is valid, but he doesn’t go far enough in condemning either the gullible headline-seeking media or in recognizing the degree of harm caused by researchers whose agenda is driven more by politics than by science.

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

  4. This was no study. It was a poll of ordinary people about what they thought. They were asked leading questions about their opinions on smoking, SHS/ETS AND 3RD HAND SMOKE. This is not a study, it is a Poll nothing more.

    Anti’s will do anythong to promote their agena.

  5. Its is obvious the anti autonomy shills are well represented here and seeking to provoke the worst intentions among us with the obvious intent of diluting all of our rights. Abortion laws are founded in identical rights of governance over one’s own body, which gives a pretty good hint, of who is financing this major political scam. Tobacco taxes and the bans are an example of very poor moral integrity at work in the legislatures. Using a moralist stick to “Help someone quit smoking” is thin at best and certainly not the act of kindness that sold it. It is all about the money. Targeting the addicted, to serve the needs of the majority who don’t smoke is unforgivable. It is not much wonder normally law abiding and honest individuals are doing their duty by ignoring these foolish laws. The only risk in play here; would be statistical, by the most extreme levels in extreme durations, meaning a minor increased risk to a bartender 24-7 over a 50 year span. The general public by normal exposure to second and certainly never third hand smoke [fools gold] is not at increased risk, or could they ever be, considering the ingredients and the quantities involved. Cigarette taxes are regressive they target the poor and minorities the hardest. The Bans are promoted hate, much more than inclusive neighborly attitudes protected by a sign, promoting choice which was all that was ever required.

    • Thanks for your comment. There is a lot of substance in here that is worthy of a reply. For instance, in response to the assertion of using money to dilute the individual rights of people who decide to smoke, it is worth considering how much money is spent by tobacco companies to encourage people to smoke (click here, for an illustration of some of the tobacco companies’ approaches: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=11226). Moreover, tobacco taxes need not be regressive in effect, particularly given that the poor are more likely to quit smoking in response to tobacco tax increases and that income from tobacco taxes can be spent helping lower income people.

  6. Elizabeth..If you bother to check you would find that Drug Companies spend many times what Tobacco companies are able to spend. These same Drug Companies have been found to misrepresent the effects of their drugs and one has recently been fined over 2 Billion for such actions. 29% of all studies have been found to be fraudulent. The competition for funds is the driving force behind studies and they will lose funding if the study does not support the needs of the funder. You will find it very hard to find Advertising that does not stray from to total truth. Some, if not most, of the side effets from drugs are worse than the disease. Drug Companies would like to control our lives and make their 24/’7 asvertisements in that attempt.
    Tobacco taxes may not need to be regressive but they are and will continue to because of our Legislators greed for pet projects. Most Tobacco Taxes have the unfortunate effet of reducing the Taxes to the States and cause a need for more taxes to make up the difference.
    Smokers have always paid more than they supposedly cost the State, even at .30 cents per pack as pointed out by one large study.
    When you research enough and find there is no real threat from SHS, which is supposed to be the reason for smoking bans, higher Taxes is nothing but a biased reason to raise Taxes. In a Republic, votng should not be used to discriminate againse a minority.

    • Money spent by drug companies and money spent by tobacco companies are two separate issues that should be treated separately. The issues raised by each are important, but should not be conflated.

      With regards to tobacco taxes being a tax on a minority, throughout modern history, taxes and other financial incentives/disincentives have always been used to modify behavior in society–either by providing tax credits or subsidies for behavior we want to encourage (such as, for example, for home ownership) or through penalties (such as for taking from retirement savings early) [you can take issue with the policy reasons behind either of these examples; I include them only to point out that society uses our tax system to encourage or discourage certain behavior]. Society deems what behaviors it wants to encourage, and what behaviors it wants to discourage, and uses the tax system accordingly. Adam Smith noted as much in 1776 by saying: “Sugar, rum, and tobacco are commodities which are nowhere necessaries of life, which are become objects of almost universal consumption, and which are therefore extremely proper subjects of taxation.”

      Regarding the cost of smokers to the state: Most of the studies I’ve seen that conclude that smoking doesn’t cost society much make their arguments by noting that smokers die before they need expensive end-of-life care. Yes, dying early is “cheaper” for the state than living a long life; but from a public health perspective, that is not the calculation that should be made. Dying early still costs society a lot in terms of the loss of otherwise productive years (not to mention the costs of diseases associated with tobacco consumption). Moreover, many calculations of the cost to society of cigarettes or other tobacco consumption do not take into account expensive externalities such as the cost of homes burned down as a result of inadvertent fires caused by cigarettes.

      And the discussion has not touched upon the costs of tobacco consumption to developing countries, which are incredibly high. In developing countries, people with very little money spend a very large percentage of their funds on tobacco; funds that could otherwise be diverted to food, education, or health care. In countries like Indonesia, if the poorest 10% donated 2/3 of the money otherwise spent on tobacco on food, hundreds of thousands of children that otherwise go undernourished would have enough to eat. Those costs need to be included in any calculus about the costs of tobacco consumption–an activity that provides comparably few social benefits.

  7. Elizabeth..If you bother to check you would find that Drug Companies spend many times what Tobacco companies are able to spend. These same Drug Companies have been found to misrepresent the effects of their drugs and one has recently been fined over 2 Billion for such actions. 29% of all studies have been found to be fraudulent. The competition for funds is the driving force behind studies and they will lose funding if the study does not support the needs of the grant. You will find it very hard to find Advertising that does not stray from to total truth. Some, if not most, of the side effects from drugs are worse than the disease. Drug Companies would like to control our lives and make their 24/’7 advertisements in that attempt.
    Tobacco taxes may not need to be regressive but they are and will continue to because of our Legislators greed for pet projects. Most Tobacco Taxes have the unfortunate effect of reducing the Taxes to the States and cause a need for more taxes to make up the difference.
    Smokers have always paid more than they supposedly cost the State, even at .30 cents per pack as pointed out by one large study.
    When you research enough and find there is no real threat from SHS, which is supposed to be the reason for smoking bans, higher Taxes is nothing but a biased reason to raise Taxes. In a Republic, voting/laws should not be used to discriminate against a minority.

  8. Money moves the Health Industry. Of the possible 300+ causes of Heart Disease it is always, Smoking/SHS that is the first target. Only 18% of smokers get Heart Disease and SHS is not connected to Heart Disease. There are dozens of possible causes of Lung Cancer and Smokers account for only 17%. The Drug Industry is financing the Smoking Ban agenda in order to market Smoking Cessation Products. The real possible causes are ignored. We should be looking at Diesel, gas, wood burning, industrial pollution, our drinking water, diet and chemicals plus virus and infection. Pharmaceutical Drugs are part of the problem with FDA approval. Thousands die every year from FDA approved drugs.
    These will never be seen in our Major media.

  9. Elizabeth, some of what you say is true, but some is also rather misleading.

    The spending by drug companies to promote nicotine products is not really a separate issue from that spent by tobacco companies, particularly since so much of it is spent directly to influence laws and taxes that will promote the NicoGummyPatchyThingies.

    In terms of taxing a minority, past taxations of minorities are by no means a justification for continued taxing, particularly when the minority is question tends to be below average in income and when the tax is such an unjustifiably high percentage of basic product price. Smith noted that Rum, Sugar, and Tobacco were products of near universal consumption in his time. Today only about a quarter of the US population smokes – 60 million adults.

    You can read a good analysis of taxation vs. costs arguments in my “Taxes, Costs, and the MSA” essay at http://pasan.TheTruthIsALie.com (near the bottom of the red-highlighted articles.) I fully agree that the economic issue should not be confused with the public health issue, but it’s the Antismokers who constantly bring the two up as being related when they push for higher taxes. Your “costs to society” of smoking caused fires has two faults: First of all the economics involved are almost nothing compared to the other economics of taxes and costs – it’s just a good emotive peg to hang an argument on since obviously everyone will agree that deaths in fires are horrible. Secondly, no calculation has been made as to the cost of fires caused by smoking bans: Obviously hidden smoking resulting in hastily and improperly disposed of butts in areas where fire-safety equipment (ashtrays) has been removed may be increasing the number of fires … but, oddly enough, no antismoking organizations seem to have offered grants to study such a problem.

    Finally, you are correct about the high costs of tobacco use in developing countries. The antismoking organizations that have pushed for higher taxes upon the smokers in those countries should not only be ashamed of themselves, but perhaps even held criminally liable for what they’ve done in pushing for ever higher taxes that end up harming the children.

    Elizabeth, I think it would be proper though, given that we are guests here in the Global Health Law Forum, that we stick to topic to at least some extent. Would you care to defend the “Third Hand Smoke” theory in light of the initial postings by Dr. Kabat and myself?

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

  10. Third Hand Smoke is a non issue. Its so far out that even full blown anti smokers don’t waste their time on it. A child could lick the floor for a billion years and just end up with a dirty tongue. A waste of time.

  11. Thank you both, Michael and Virgil for your thoughtful replies. Along with my co-author Jackie Tumwine, I actually run the blog–so we don’t have to worry too much about straying from the initial topic. That said, I think Virgil is correct that third hand smoke is much closer to a non-issue, although I defer to my co-author Jackie who originated this particular blog post.

    Michael–you make a number of great points, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to do justice in replying in the limited time I have immediately available. Suffice it to say, I think we strongly disagree about tobacco taxation in developing countries–and it is your point towards the end that I am most interested in.

    My reasoning is as follows: tobacco consumption in developing countries is harmful to society in ways that are more troubling that tobacco consumption in developed countries–particularly because, as you say, rates of tobacco consumption in developed countries are relatively low. The rates of tobacco consumption are just starting to grow in developing countries, with tobacco companies spending lots of money on promotions and such to entice young smokers to become lifelong addicts–that is the way that tobacco companies will continue to remain profitable. Many of the people they are attracting are people who otherwise live on less than $1 a day so that money spent on tobacco products is money that would otherwise be spent on food, health and education.

    What study after study has shown is that the variable with the largest effect on reducing tobacco consumption is higher prices, generally effectuated by higher rates of taxation. More so than providing counter-advertising, quit programs, etc., increased prices of tobacco products deters and reduces tobacco consumption. This rate of decrease is even steeper among the poorest.

    Although tobacco taxation is regressive in principal, it becomes much less so as the poorest quit smoking in response. It becomes even less so if revenue generated is used to benefit the less well off, for instance, by using the revenue to provide access to clean water, access to medical care, access to education, or even access to tobacco control resources.

  12. Elizabeth, as I noted in my first post, your co-blogger wrote one of the most accurate articles on the net about the study. Most writers simply swallowed the line that the researchers wanted them to swallow: that “third hand smoke” had somehow been discovered as a “danger” instead of looking to see what research had actually been done.

    In terms of taxation, I understand your reasoning, but yes, we do disagree. For one thing, you note that tobacco consumption in the developed world is much lower than in the poorer countries, and yet I’ve seen articles decrying huge rates of tobacco use in those poor countries because it takes such an enormous chunk out of people’s basic food and needs budgets. Putting that together one could make the argument that impoverishing people through excess taxes is actually good for them since they won’t be able to afford to smoke so much.

    I believe people should have the freedom to decide what they want to do that makes them happy in their lives, even if it’s not necessarily good for them or is something I disapprove of. If you look at my bio at http://www.antibrains.com you’ll see that I used to BE an “Anti” of a sort: I was an anti-car fanatic and proposed and pushed for many of the sorts of behavior modification techniques later picked up and used by the Antismokers.

    I’m still a bicyclist, but I no longer feel I have the right to push my vision of “the best world” onto other people through such things as tripling gas taxes or making driving more uncomfortable or less convenient. I would no longer advocate laws requiring posters of horrific traffic accident casualties on windshields of cars being sold, or push for laws banning radios in cars on the basis of the music/news distracting the driver from the road while my real motive would simply be to make the driving commute less tolerable. And so forth. I like to say that I “know” the Antismokers because I used to be one… except it wasn’t about smoking.

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

    • Ahh, so we are closer than I thought. I’m in the school of thought that believes–not necessarily that we should prevent people from doing what they would otherwise want to do–but that people should make their choices based on the actual cost of their decisions. If the market doesn’t reflect the actual costs to society of the choice, than the additional cost should be incorporated through price increases such as taxation. If the economic cost to an individual of driving cars (gas, insurance, etc.) does not include the costs to society of the person choosing to drive cars (e.g., pollution, accidents, etc.), then the individual’s cost–through taxation or otherwise–should be amended to reflect the actual cost. If the side effect of the increase in cost is a change in behavior (people deciding not to drive, people deciding not to smoke), that is all the better–and indicative that society was subsidizing an individual’s choice at the expense of other societal imperatives.

      But then this takes us back to the discussion of how much smokers really cost society (which I think includes things like productive years lost, or–in developing countries–the costs of caring for children and widows of those who die young from tobacco related illness, a not insignificant amount).

      And this analysis assumes that all other factors are kept equal. Where there is an industry that spends billions of dollars to hook people on a product (tobacco) that provides little, if any, benefits, I am more inclined to use factors to discourage people from consuming tobacco products than I would if people really were just making a free decision (I would suggest that the correlation in the rise of smokers in particular developing countries that have been the specific target of tobacco companies’ plans to increase tobacco consumption indicates that the choice is not entirely “free”).

      I also think that the lowest income people deciding not to smoke, and earmarking revenues to benefit the lowest income people, limits the regressivity of a tobacco tax, but I can see where you could be concerned.

  13. Well stated Elizabeth, and indeed we’re not that far from each other on some points. In terms of cost analysis though I’d be interested in your thoughts on my “Taxes, Costs, and the MSA” at:


    In terms of benefits though, don’t discount the benefits that people FEEL from smoking. You wouldn’t discount the benefits people feel from the mild buzz they get from a couple of glasses of wine, or the endorphins released during sex… and smoking provides similar benefits, though usually at a lower level, hundreds of times a day for smokers. Which explains why one of the side effects of quitting is so often trouble with depression.

    OK… I think that might be it for me for the evening. Long day here! LOL! Good finding someone to have a reasonably disagreeing discussion with though! :>

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

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