Imagine, for a moment, a teething baby. You know, the one drooling with its mouth half open, ready to chomp on whatever may present itself…. shoulders, blankets, toys, carpet… anything within its necks reach. It’s a bit gross to think about the dirt and germs that the baby may be exposed to. But it is downright scary to image that a baby is in direct contact with carcinogenic residue from cigarette smoke. In environments contaminated by thirdhand smoke, babies can be exposed through their skin (dermal absorption) as they lie directly on contaminated surfaces such as carpets, blankets, or couches. They are also exposed by ingestion, as they suck on things contaminated by thirdhand smoke, and through inhalation as they often are breathing in air only inches from surfaces where thirdhand smoke collects. Inhalation is also likely if they are held by a smoker.
Thirdhand smoke does not impact all population groups equally. The health risks associated with exposure to thirdhand smoke depend on many factors. Among the most important are age and health status. Duration, dosage, pathways, and patterns of exposure also influence health risks. As illustrated above, the behaviors, biology, and environments of small children place them at far greater risk than adults.
Exposure to thirdhand smoke likely also varies significantly depending on income, education, and other socioeconomic factors. For example, consumers with lower income may be more likely to purchase ‘used’ items (e.g., car, furniture, clothes) that may be contaminated with thirdhand smoke, have to settle for cheaper hotels that allow smoking, or live in multiunit housing where smoking behavior of previous occupants or neighbors results in thirdhand smoke exposure regardless of their personal smoking habits.
All people, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic status have equal rights to healthy environments where they live, work, and play. Focusing on population characteristics that make individuals more susceptible to thirdhand smoke exposure is critical to ensuring everyone’s rights are fulfilled.