What Can We Learn From Other Environmental Health Policies?

We do not yet  know everything about thirdhand smoke, but we already know a lot. We know that it sticks to all surfaces of objects in rooms or cars where someone smoked, such as tables, carpets, bed frames, clothes, walls. It can seep into carpet backing, pillows, gypsum board. It stays on the skin and clothes. It can persists in indoor environments for months or even years after after a smoking ban. We know that it contains a mix of different toxic chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Some of these chemicals can cause cancer, damage human DNA, weaken the immune system, and harm lung and heart functions. We also know that the residue can become more toxic as it gets older because the chemicals in the tobacco smoke residue continue to react creating new toxic compounds. We also know that we can be exposed to this toxic residue when we inhale chemicals that off gas. Our skin takes up thirdhand smoke chemicals when we touch polluted objects, and we ingest these chemicals when we eat from plates or with utensils that are polluted or touch our mouth with our hands. We know that in multiunit housing where some residents smoke, all apartments are likely to be affected by thirdhand smoke. We also know that cleaning a home or car of a heavy indoor smoker is difficult, if not impossible, because thirdhand smoke toxicants have become embedded in building materials.  

What can we do to protect our homes and property from thirdhand smoke and our loved ones from exposure?  The single most important policy is a comprehensive 100% smoking ban for all indoor environments — no exceptions. If we can prevent tobacco from being smoked in indoor environments, we have prevented the precursor of thirdhand smoke. But while many buildings in California have some form of smoking restriction, effective smoking bans require education, buy-in, monitoring, and enforcement efforts that are sometimes lacking. To prevent thirdhand smoke, we need not only comprehensive smoking bans, but also comprehensive efforts to implement, monitor, and enforce these plans.

But there still is the problem of thirdhand smoke residue that has accumulated over decades before a smoking ban was introduced. What policies might be effective for nonsmokers who keep who keep their homes and cars smoke free but are affected by the toxic legacy of previous home and car owners? Those of us who live in multiunit housing may be exposed when other residents smoke. Those of us who find bargains in secondhand or “antique” shops may be exposed when we bring home an item saturated with tobacco smoke by its previous owner. Health warnings on tobacco products, or taxes on tobacco, or even smoking restrictions, do not directly protect and assist those nonsmokers who are exposed in these ways.

To better understand policy options that might work for thirdhand smoke, it is helpful to consider policies that protect us from other environmental hazards, such as radon, lead, and asbestos. A careful analysis of these options suggests a multipronged approach that includes [1] consumer education; [2] testing of thirdhand smoke pollution and exposure; [3] disclosure requirements in real estate and other property transactions, apartment and car rentals, and hotels; [4] extensions of smoking bans; [5] disclosure through warning labels (incl. Prop 65 ); [6] the legal frameworks of private nuisance, public nuisance, personal injury, breach of contract, lemon law; and [7] remediation guidelines. Our task is to carefully consider these and other policy strategies and evaluate their potential impact on thirdhand smoke.

Overview of Regulatory and Voluntary Strategies Used to Protect People from Lead, Radon, and Asbestos Exposure

StrategyLeadRadonAsbestos
Public Education EffortsXXX
Prohibit use in products XX
Require notification of potential buyers and renters about presence of hazard in the homeXXX
Buyers can do independent home inspection.XXX
Required testing in rental unitsX
Required mitigation in rental unitsX
Required mitigation in public housingX
Training and certification of professionalsXX
Tax creditsX
(new construction)
X
(for removal)
LitigationX
(public, private)
X
(private)
Local housing codesX
Required reportingX
(blood lead levels)
Medicaid coverage of testingX
(blood lead levels)
Financial assistance for housing constructionX
(affordable housing)
Free testing kitsX

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