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News: Wild Headline Claims ‘Third-Hand Smoke Exposure as Deadly as Smoking’

4 Feb 2014

Here’s a perfect example of the politicization of anti-tobacco “science.” A study comes out, a press release announces it, and news reports on it. And each step seems to mislead readers more than the next.

smoke-plumeAn article about a government-funded study by the National Institute of Health (which, as you might expect, doesn’t go out of its way to fund studies that show that the risks of smoking are overestimated) is titled “Cigarette Smoke Toxins Deposited on Surfaces: Implications for Human Health.”

The authors wanted to get publicity for their study so they put out a statement titled “Third-hand Smoke Shown to Cause Health Problems.” The press release included references to the sponsoring university’s policy of a tobacco-free, campus including e-cigarettes, even though it was not related to the study at all.

Next, a reporter summarized the study with an article that ran with this fear-inducing headline: “Study: Third-Hand Smoke Exposure as Deadly as Smoking.”

Note the escalating sensationalism?


If you’re an unsuspecting person who clicks on the article from the Drudge Report (where the link appeared), then you’d assume you might as well smoke if you’re going to be in places where people have smoked before. The study says it’s just “as deadly as smoking.” That’s the claim the headline makes at least.

But you don’t have to be a scientist to understand the basic concepts of dosage and concentrations make it ridiculous to claim that smoking cigarettes (that’s what is studied, not cigars, even though the headline doesn’t make it clear) poses the same danger as spending that time in a  room where people have smoked in the past.

Not to mention the actual study involved shaving mouses’ backs so that exposure would be maximized to the strips of carpeting that had been placed in tiny, unventilated containers that were filled with smoke by a special smoking machine. Needless to say, it’s not particularly analogous to any normal human activity.

Plus, so far as I can tell, the human equivalent would be rolling up a 16 foot by 16 foot carpet, and placing it in a small closet for weeks on end while continually smoking but keeping the closet closed air-tight. Then never cleaning the carpet and laying naked on it for most of your life. Still, somehow that gets reported to the public as if it’s “as deadly as smoking,” and then politicians and activists repeat it to justify complete smoking bans. (Take a look at the bills on this page if you have your doubts.)

After all, if you can be seriously harmed not only by contemporaneous exposure to other people smoking but by exposure to a place where someone in the past may have smoked, then the only way to protect people fully is a complete ban on smoking. Which, unfortunately, is exactly what they want.

Patrick S

photo credit: Flickr

8 Responses to “News: Wild Headline Claims ‘Third-Hand Smoke Exposure as Deadly as Smoking’”

  1. John Davidson Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    Many constituents of third hand smoke can be found in all homes and cars, regardless of smoking

    Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health

    University of Sydney

    Matt et al’s demonstration that nicotine can be detected in house dust, on surfaces and on fingers in homes formerly occupied by smokers[1] is used as a springboard to promote concern about third hand smoke(THS)[2]. Given the rudimentary nature of most domestic cleaning and the common experience of the distinctive smell of stale tobacco smoke, few will find it surprising that traces of nicotine can be found in smokers’ homes long after they have vacated them.

    While Schick notes several times that the health consequences of this level of exposure are unknown, the title of her editorial says that THS is “here to stay”[2], presumably an intended pun suggesting that concerns about the health implications of THS are now established. Schick notes that nicotine “and all the other things that go along with it” can pollute houses. But the soup of gases, fine and ultra-fine particles in tobacco smoke that include irritants, toxins and carcinogens has much in common with smoke emitted as pyrolisis products from the combustion of other organic matter: when you breath wood smoke[3], cooking smoke[4] or petroleum smoke[5], you are exposed to many of the very same irritants and carcinogens that are also in tobacco smoke.

    So why did Matt et al consider only nicotine? There is not a house anywhere that is not finely carpeted with many of the very same pyrolysis compounds “that go along with” nicotine but which originate from everyday activities like heating, cooking, candles, electrical appliances, and leaving windows and doors open to allow household exposure to motor transport fumes. Had they done so, equally “alarming” information about all our houses would have emerged to give their findings some important perspective.

    The evidence base that has supported indoor smoking restrictions is concentrated around fine particle (PM2.5) concentrations emitted in unhealthy abundance by smoking[6] and on the evidence of harm from particularly chronic exposure to those particles and what they contain. While nicotine is often used as a marker for secondhand smoke exposure and not benign[7], nicotine is far from being the chief health concern.

    Ott and Seigmann[8] and Wallace and Ott[9] provide data on fine and ultra-fine particle emissions from different sources: “Controlled experiments with 10 cigarettes averaged 0.15 ng mm-2 … ambient wood smoke averaged 0.29 ng mm-2 or about twice those of cigarettes and cigars … In-vehicle exposures measured on 43 and 50 min drives on a California arterial highway gave PC/DC ratios of 0.42 and 0.58 ng mm-2 … Interstate highways had PC/DC ratios of approximately 0.5 ng mm-2 with ratios above 1 ng mm-2 when driving behind diesel trucks. These PC/DC ratios were higher than the ”signature” value of the cigarette (0.11-0.19 ngmm-2)measured in a large Indian gaming casino with smoking.” [8]

    Tobacco smoke also contains ultra-fine particles. Other sources of ultra-fine particles (UFPs) include “laser printers, fax machines, photocopiers, the peeling of citrus fruits, cooking, penetration of contaminated outdoor air, chimney cracks and vacuum cleaners.”[8] Wallace and Ott’s data on concentrations of UFPs in restaurants and cars found “cooking on gas or electric stoves and electric toaster ovens was a major source of UFP, with peak personal exposures often exceeding 100,000 particles/cm3 …. Other common sources of high UFP exposures [in restaurants] were cigarettes, a vented gas clothes dryer, an air popcorn popper, candles, an electric mixer, a toaster, a hair dryer, a curling iron, and a steam iron.”[9]

    It is important that research documents residuals from tobacco smoke. But it is equally important that consumers and policy makers are not led to believe that the chemical compounds thus located are somehow unique to tobacco smoke. Unless in the extremely unlikely event that residents burn copious quantities of solanaceous vegetables (aubergine, tomato) which contain small amounts of nicotine, tobacco is going to be the only source of nicotine in homes. But it will not by any means be the only source of many of the ingredients of “third hand smoke” that the unwitting or the fumophobic may believe are attributable only to smoking. The omission of this information in such reports risks harming the credibility of tobacco control.

  2. John Davidson Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    BS Alert: The 'third-hand smoke' hoax

    The thirdhand smoke scam

  3. magnetic01 Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    Siegel’s comment on the latest thirdhand smoke “study”:

  4. magnetic01 Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    Where this is heading:

    • John Davidson Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 10:50 am #

      It's a clear violation of the KY Civil Rights Act. As silly as it may be, smokers cannot be hired/fired in KY.

  5. Patrick Semmens Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 11:26 am #

    Somehow I neglected to mention that the "journalist" who wrote the article is named: Benjamin Fearnow

    Seriously, it's Mr. Fearnow spreading the fearmongering.

  6. michaeljmcfadden Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

    There's some extensive commenting going on as well over at:

    1200 comments! LOL!


  7. michaeljmcfadden Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

    One that the Stogie folks here might appreciate from page 208 of my "TobakkoNacht — The Antismoking Endgame":

    Before ending our look at thirdhand smoke, I’d like to point out that the Hohenstein Institute and its concern about Terrifyingly Toxic T-Shirts by no means stands alone in the thirdhand smoke loony bin. One afternoon while wandering the wilds of the Internet, I came across a very serious post from a young lady named Vicki. Vicki professed to be quite seriously worried about the awful dangers of yet another variation of this new threat. … at first I thought it must be a joke, but when I checked, the placement of it within the context of the discussion after Winickoff’s Scientific American article made it quite clear that it was serious.

    "I'm a true believer in third-hand smoke, and I'm not even a child. At work I had to share a telephone with a smoker. I developed breathing problems, had a swelling in my mouth, and also had a “suspicious” breast biopsy. I started cleaning the phone off with “Wet Ones” wipes. My swelling went away, plus my breathing problems went away. Still have to be tested again to see if my biopsy is benign, but I'm pretty optimistic."

    Thanks to the Antismokers, we are now living in a world where innocent people have been made fearful of “catching breast cancer” because they’ve used a telephone previously used by a smoker. It would be hard to find any examples of more extreme, hate-based disease paranoia even in the “coloured only” accommodations of the 1950s’ southern US or in the heart of pre-Kristallnacht Nazi Germany.

    Sad, eh?