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Third-Hand Smoke Could Kill You

An experiment done at UC Riverside concluded that "third-hand" or "passive" smoking can also lead to a higher risk of cancer. This means that the hysterical reaction people have to you lighting up in public is only going to get worse.

Photo via Flickr User DCist

UC Riverside published the results of an experiment last week, concluding that "third-hand smoke," i.e. that rich, burnt oatmeal smell emanating from grandpa's sweater, is a credible health threat. The takeaway: Don't smoke. Don't hang around smokers. And don't hang around people who hang around smokers, which, outside of Utah, pretty much eliminates everyone.

The experiment itself was conducted by Manuela Martins-Green, Professor of Cell Biology at UCR. She exposed lab mice to a simulation of the conditions under which humans take in third-hand smoke. Burnt tobacco residue was added to surfaces and dust within the mouse enclosures, but the mice weren't added until later, meaning they were exposed to no actual smoke. In the end, Martins-Green said in a UCR news release, “We found significant damage occurs in the liver and lung. Wounds in these mice took longer to heal. Further, these mice displayed hyperactivity.” The details of the experiment are all online. The damning conclusions written up in UCR's release are as follows:


  • There was an increase in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • The lungs became inflamed, and showed risks for fibrosis (a kind of abnormal cell growth).
  • Risk for obstructive pulmonary disease increased.
  • Slower wound healing, comparable to that of smokers after surgery, was observed.
  • The mice became hyperactive, because they had cute little nicotine buzzes.

They hasten to conclude that babies are at the highest risk, because like mice, they crawl along the ground, mingling with the cigarette schmutz. Obviously, these results in mice merit some kind of longitudinal study in humans if such a thing is possible.

For a while now, even the most ardent smokers have been able to pay lip service to the safety of others by just going outside to do their filthy business. This new study is a nod to the early days of secondhand smoke publicity in the early 1990s, when smoking was suddenly a crime against humanity, and lighting up at a concert meant a posse of Minor Threat fans might come and slap the cigarette from your mouth.

The term "third-hand smoke" sounds preposterous. I can already hear the Fox News pundits going, "What's next? Fourth-hand smoke? Fifth? Sixth?" Anti-smoking crusaders should do themselves a huge PR favor and switch to what Wikipedia calls it: "passive smoking." If the residue left behind by tobacco smoke contains particles like polonium-210, and it apparently does, then there's a cancer risk, no matter how many times the effects of the smoke symbolically change "hands."

At any rate, the study could be good news for sanity. Smokers in the US and many other wealthy countries feel pushed to the margins by regulations, but as VICE readers are no doubt aware, poorer countries still don't have their shit together when it comes to  preventing kids from smoking. More information like this could stem the tide of passive smoking deaths worldwide, which, counterintuitive as this may seem, are still on the rise, at 600,000 per year and climbing.

And anyway, anti-smoking advocates need something to do with their time other than try and ban e-cigarettes, which would be a fucking stupid thing to do.