What surfaces does thirdhand smoke stick to?

The Short Answer:

Thirdhand smoke is the chemicals left behind when someone smokes tobacco. Thirdhand smoke is unhealthy for people and pets. It can stick around for a long time in homes and cars. It gets into your body through your lungs, skin, and mouth. Getting rid of it is really hard and can cost a lot of money.

Thirdhand smoke sticks to: 

Indoor Surfaces, such as:

  • Walls
  • Carpets
  • Windows
  • Doors

Household Objects, such as:Cartoon images of items that thirdhand smoke sticks to and their descriptions, including toys, furniture, carpet, bedding, interior walls, fixtures, tableware, books, and clothes

  • Furniture
  • Toys
  • Books
  • Dishes
  • Bedding
  • Curtains

People, including:

  • Hair
  • Skin
  • Clothing

Thirdhand smoke can off-gas from these materials, and we can sometimes smell it as stale tobacco. The chemicals in thirdhand smoke can be spread by moving polluted objects from one place to another. 

The Long Answer:

Thirdhand smoke is the chemical residue from tobacco smoke. It is also called “tobacco smoke residue” or “stale tobacco smoke.” The chemicals in thirdhand smoke are toxic to humans, especially children. It can linger for years in dust and on household surfaces. It can also become embedded in carpets, furniture, clothes, and building materials. It is difficult and expensive to remove.

After tobacco smoke disappears, thirdhand smoke stays on surfaces, in dust, and on objects. Thirdhand smoke soaks into materials and sticks to most indoor surfaces. It can stick to walls, carpets, windows, and doors. It can stick to household objects, such as furniture, books, toys, dishes, silverware, curtains, blankets, and pillows. It can stick to skin, hair, and clothing too. People can carry thirdhand smoke from one place to another if they move polluted objects. 

In an environment where someone smokes tobacco for years, thirdhand smoke contaminates every surface and object. This includes hidden surfaces, such as under tables, inside closets and drawers, in the spongy material underneath a carpet, and in wallboard and housing insulation. Some surfaces, such as drywall, carpets, and pillows, act like sponges soaking up water and storing toxic thirdhand smoke chemicals. Just like water evaporating from a wet sponge, these chemicals can be released back into the air, leading to exposure long after someone smokes. People can move thirdhand smoke chemicals from place to place, such as when someone moves furniture from a smoking home into a smokefree home or when someone enters a smokefree indoor space after a smoking break.

Do you have more questions about the toxic legacy of tobacco smoke, how it affects human health, and what we can do about it? Learn more here.

Updated: February 2024

Sources:

Matt GE, Hoh E, Quintana PJE, Zakarian JM, Arceo J. Cotton pillows: A novel field method for assessment of thirdhand smoke pollution. Environ Res. 2019 Jan;168:206-210. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2018.09.025. Epub 2018 Sep 22. PMID: 30317105; PMCID: PMC6800039.

Matt, G. E., Quintana, P. J., Hovell, M. F., Chatfield, D., Ma, D. S., Romero, R., & Uribe, A. (2008). Residual tobacco smoke pollution in used cars for sale: air, dust, and surfaces. Nicotine Tob Res, 10(9), 1467-1475. doi:10.1080/14622200802279898.

Matt GE, Quintana PJE, Zakarian JM, Hoh E, Hovell MF, Mahabee-Gittens M, Watanabe K, Datuin K, Vue C, Chatfield DA. When smokers quit: exposure to nicotine and carcinogens persists from thirdhand smoke pollution. Tob Control. 2016;26(5):548-556. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2016-053119.

Merianos AL, Matt GE, Stone TM, Jandarov RA, Hoh E, Dodder NG, Quintana PJE, Lopez-Galvez N, Stone L, Mahabee-Gittens EM. Contamination of surfaces in children’s homes with nicotine and the potent carcinogenic tobacco-specific nitrosamine NNK. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2023 Dec 16. doi: 10.1038/s41370-023-00629-8. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 38104233.

Northrup TF, Stotts AL, Suchting R, Khan AM, Green C, Klawans MR, Quintana PJE, Hoh E, Hovell MF, Matt GE, Thirdhand Smoke Contamination and Infant Nicotine Exposure in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit: An Observational Study. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2021 Feb;23(2);373–382. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntaa167

Quintana PJE, Lopez-Galvez N, Matt GE, Merianos AL, Dodder NG, Hoh E, et al. Cotton pillow samplers for assessment of thirdhand smoke in homes of smokers and nonsmokers with children. Journal of Environmental Exposure Assessment. 2023;2(4):23. doi: 10.20517/jeea.2023.28.

Schick SF, Farraro KF, Perrino C, Sleiman M, van de Vossenberg G, Trinh MP, Hammond SK, Jenkins BM, Balmes J. Thirdhand cigarette smoke in an experimental chamber: evidence of surface deposition of nicotine, nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and de novo formation of NNK. Tob Control. 2014 Mar;23(2):152-9. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2012-050915. Epub 2013 May 28. PMID: 23716171.



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