by Shannon Pinto and Courtney Wathen; Farnsley Middle School (Louisville, KY)

My parents smoke in my house. The whole house smells terrible! The walls, the carpet, even the couch smells like disgusting smoke. Some people’s clothes and hair smell like smoke because their parents smoke. They smell like this because whomever they live with smokes in the house or in the car and they’re exposed to the smoke. When this happens, the chemicals from the cigarettes go in the air and seep into the carpet, rugs, clothes and most importantly the walls. The walls are most important because many people don’t wash walls, so they don’t realize it’s there. This kind of smoking is different from second hand smoking; it’s called thirdhand smoking.

            Second hand smoking is when you are in a car or close area with someone smoking and you are accidentally inhaling the particles of smoke that are floating in the air. Third hand smoking is when someone smokes in the house and the smoke stays in the walls and carpets.

            According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) [PDF], New Jersey Department of Health [PDF], Green Guard (a free online tool for finding certified chemicals to use in schools, hospitals,), and Frac Focus (which provides the public access to reported chemicals within their area.), third hand smoke has cancer particles (see sidebar). 


Third hand smoke chemicals

Volatile organic compounds. These are chemicals used to manufacture and maintain building materials, interior furnishing, cleaning products and personal care products. “Volatile” means that these chemicals evaporate or can easily get into the air at room temperature.  “Organic” means these chemicals are carbon based. It is dangerous because the eye, nose and throat irritation, frequent headaches, nausea, and can also damage the liver, kidney and central nervous system.

 3-ethenylpyridine. This is a product of nicotine found in mainstream and side stream smoke from cigarettes and cigars. Side stream smoke is the smoke released at the end of the burning cigarettes. Mainstream smoke is the smoke exhaled from the person’s mouth. It will most likely cause respiratory irritation.

Phenol. This is a manufactured chemical and a natural substance. Phenol is a liquid and has a distinct odor that is sickeningly sweet and tarry. It is often used in household disinfectants in order to  hide smells. If you inhale too much you develop, scanty/dark urine, shock, severe burns and numbness to skin if it gets on your skin.

 Naphthalene. This is a chemical derived from coal tar, mostly used in moth balls. High exposure to it can cause headache, fatigue, confusion, nausea and vomiting. It can damage the liver and kidney as well.

Formaldehyde. It is classified as a known human carcinogen (a cancer causing particle.) Exposure is highly irritating to the eyes, nose and throat and can make anyone exposed wheeze and cough. Ingestion of Formaldehyde can cause asthma like respiratory problems.

Nitrosamines. These are organic carcinogenic compounds found in various foods like, potato chips, french fries, and grilled/charcoal foods. Nitrosamines has been tested and proven that nitrosamine is capable of penetrating the skin.

         Thirdhand smoking, according to Hugo Destaillats’s website—a physical chemist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, CA—leaves more than just a bad smell. “The residue also reacts with particles in the air to produce cancer causing compounds that linger on the surfaces for months.” These particles are dangerous to everyone in the house, but especially babies. Babies touch and crawl all around the rugs, carpet and floors. The most dangerous thing is the particles could get on the babies toys and the babies will put it in their mouths. Many parents smoke when the child is away or sleeping thinking that they are protecting them from the smoke particles. They do not know that the particles are still in the furniture and walls.

            We surveyed 181 students and asked if their parents smoked or if they knew anyone who smokes. 90% of the people we surveyed said that they knew people who smoked. Then we asked if they smoked in the house, half of the people said yes to that. According to our surveys 75% out of 181 students are exposed to the toxins of third hand smoke.   Shannon Pinto Courtney Wathen

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  1. This was a very good article and full of information concerning thirdhand smoking. I’ve always wondered about the chemicals and why things have always smelled like smoke. In my old house, my parents used to smoke inside. This was great.