Q & A Library

Print this page | Sign up for free e-bulletins
 | Bookmark This Page

Is Third-Hand Smoke a Threat?

I've been hearing more about "third-hand" smoke.  Can you tell me what it is and how it differs from first and secondhand smoke? Is it as harmful as first and secondhand smoke?

Answer (Published 12/20/2013)

The term "third-hand smoke" was coined to describe the residue of tobacco smoke that settles in a closed space (a room, a car) and can remain for weeks or longer, giving off toxins that may prove to be a health threat. So far, however, the suggestion that third-hand smoke actually leads to health problems remains hypothetical.

Related Weil Products
Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging - Your Online Guide to the Anti-Inflammatory Diet! - Everything you need to get started eating a healthful, satisfying diet is here - including eating and shopping guides, over 300 recipes, and an exclusive version of Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid! Start your 14-day free trial now - and start eating anti-inflammatory today!

You may get a whiff of this standing next to a smoker even when the person is not presently smoking – the smoke from earlier cigarettes settles and accumulates in hair and clothing. In an elevator, you might smell smoke residue from a passenger who was there earlier. The toxins from tobacco smoke can settle in carpets, clothes, wood, and upholstered furniture and remain long after a cigarette has been put out. Third-hand smoke is believed to be particularly hazardous for babies and young children.

Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at the Dana–Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston and his team of researchers were the first to use the term "third-hand smoke" in a study published in 2009. In an interview at the time published in Scientific American, Dr. Winickoff focused on the possible threats to young children. He named cyanide and arsenic as the two most dangerous toxins in tobacco smoke. Others are butane, toluene, lead, carbon monoxide, and polonium-210, a highly radioactive carcinogen.

Dr. Winickoff explained that the developing brain is uniquely susceptible to extremely low levels of toxins and explains that babies and young children have the greatest exposure to those from smoke deposited on surfaces. Little kids crawl around and touch and put their mouths on contaminated floors, furniture and rugs. Dr. Winickoff made the point that children ingest twice the amount of dust that adults do because of their faster respiration and proximity to dusty surfaces (such as floors). All told, their exposure to third-hand smoke can add up to 20 times the amount adults get. Studies in rats have shown that exposure to tobacco toxins are the leading cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), although we have no evidence so far of a connection between third-hand smoke and SIDS in human babies.

In 2010, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California reported that carcinogens called tobacco-specific nitrosamines released by burning tobacco can adhere to a variety of surfaces, where they mix with dust and can be picked up on the fingers, most likely by children and infants. The researchers estimated that nicotine can persist on walls, floors, carpeting drapes and furniture for days, weeks, even months.

Unfortunately, built-up residues of third-hand smoke resist normal cleaning and can't be eliminated by opening windows, or running fans and air conditioners. We don't know yet how long they persist.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved Creative Commons Copyright Notice
A portion of the original material created by Weil Lifestyle on (specifically, all question and answer-type articles in the Dr. Weil Q&A Library) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The Weil Vitamin Advisor
Get your FREE personalized vitamin recommendation & supplement plan today!

Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging
Your Online Guide to the Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Start eating for your health - begin your free trial now.

Dr. Weil's Spontaneous Happiness
Achieve emotional well-being in just eight weeks! Start your 10-day free trial now!

Vitamin Library
Supplement your knowledge with Dr. Weil's essential vitamin facts. Learn why they are necessary and more.

Dr. Weil's Optimum Health Plan
Your 8-week plan to wellness.
Begin your journey today!

Dr. Weil's Head-to-Toe Wellness Guide
Your guide to natural health.
Use the Wellness Guide today!

Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Food Pyramid

Our interactive tool can help improve overall health through diet.

Condition Care Guide
Learn about health conditions from acne to vertigo, and Dr. Weil's view of the best treatment options for each.

Healthy Recipes
Discover a treasure trove of healthy, healing foods and creative, delicious ways to prepare them.

Q&A Library
Over 2,000 questions from you and their corresponding answers from Dr. Weil.

Copyright © 2015 Weil Lifestyle
Information on this web site is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. You should not use the information on this web site for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication or other treatment.

Ad Choice
Advertising Notice

This Site and third parties who place advertisements on this Site may collect and use information about your visits to this Site and other websites in order to provide advertisements about goods and services of interest to you. If you would like to obtain more information about these advertising practices and to make choices about online behavioral advertising, please click here