What Can Our Pillows Tell Us About Thirdhand Smoke?

Thirdhand smoke is the toxic residue left behind after a person smokes. It can soak into materials, and people can inhale it, ingest it, or absorb it through their skin. Thirdhand smoke pollution awareness is growing, but simple measurement methods are not keeping up. While more scientists are studying thirdhand smoke, many research methods they use are expensive, require advanced equipment, and can take a long time to get results.

Thirdhand smoke researcher Penelope “Jenny” Quintana, PhD, MPH, at San Diego State University School of Public Health wanted to find a more accessible and community-friendly way to measure thirdhand smoke.

“I was very interested in simple methods to detect thirdhand smoke because if more people are going to get involved in measuring it, they can’t all have to use complicated stuff,” Quintana said.

Quintana led a study testing if simple cotton pillows left in a home will measure thirdhand smoke. She had used pillows before to measure thirdhand smoke in a study led by Georg Matt, PhD, at San Diego State University, but Matt’s study only used pillows with people who had quit smoking. Quintana’s new study focused on measuring thirdhand smoke in homes with children, which included caregivers who smoked indoors, outdoors only, or did not smoke at all.

1) A pillow has an orange box that says “nicotine” and a red box that says “NNK”

Quintana gave participants clean pillows to keep in their homes for about one week. At the end of the week, the SDSU Environmental Health lab measured how much nicotine and NNK, a cancer-causing chemical in tobacco smoke, each pillow had absorbed. The more nicotine and NNK in the pillow, the more thirdhand smoke the pillow had absorbed. She found that the pillows of people who smoke inside their homes had the most thirdhand smoke, followed by those in homes of people who smoke outdoors only, and the least amount in those in the homes of people who do not smoke.

While Quintana expected the homes with people smoking in them to have the most thirdhand smoke, she was curious how much smoke would gather in such a short period, she said.

“I was really surprised in one week how much [thirdhand smoke] can be generated and how much it can be soaked up,” Quintana said.

She compared the pillow results to other thirdhand smoke measurements she took, such as air, urine, and hand surface samples. The pillow results matched these results, which suggests that the pillow measurements were accurate – and a lot simpler to conduct.

Quintana used silicone wristbands worn by participants as another simple way to measure thirdhand smoke exposure. Silicone is very absorbent, so Quintana could measure the nicotine that soaked into the wristbands. She found the wristband nicotine levels also matched the other home measures.

“Really understanding when the pillow is most appropriate and when the wristbands might be more appropriate is an area for further research,” Quintana said. She suggests that wristbands could be better for measuring an individual’s exposure both inside and outside the home, whereas pillows might be better for measuring home levels of thirdhand smoke.

In the future, Quintana wants to research ways to make using the pillows even simpler, she said. For example, she wants to see if the pillows can be mailed to participants. That way, more people can test for thirdhand smoke and take steps to avoid exposure.

“The simpler we can make measurements, the more we can act on it,” Quintana said. “You can make something [that is] invisible, visible.”

Click here to read the research study.

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