A stubborn, dry cough three months after starting out the New Year with a lung infection sent me back to the doctor’s office today.

“It’s annoying. Sometimes I cough until my head hurts.” I joke about being fully aware my head isn’t screwed on all that tight.

I answer his first question before he can ask it.

“I’ve never smoked. In fact, I was the only non-smoker in a household of six.”

He makes a referral to his pulmonary care nurse, who will do some ‘tests’ and may recommend lung physio and possibly a steroid inhaler. She’ll call me. He hands me a requisition for a standard chest x-ray. I am seriously disappointed that he didn’t have an immediate remedy. I want this cough GONE. NOW. I whine at him.

He starts talking about scary things like emphysema and third-hand smoke.

“Third what?”

“Third-hand smoke. It’s what gets left behind from tobacco smoke on clothes, furniture, curtains, walls, bedding, carpets, car interiors, etc.”

He reminds me of my growing up years with a house full of smokers. Touché. I pull in my horns about a quick fix. I assure him my mom was a cleaning machine, cleaning for the sake of cleaning, every day.

I don’t hear everything he says after that.

IMGP4998 2I’m thinking about a life-time of exposure to third-hand smoke not just at home, but at work, play and when travelling.

I’m thinking about the drawn out struggle for the establishment of smoke-free meeting rooms in my workplace back in the late 1970’s.

I’m thinking about the time a few years ago when I helped family members stage their folk’s home for sale. Both parents had been chain smokers. The father had died in his mid-fifties from a heart attack; the mother recently moved to assisted living. As we scrubbed away at the walls, someone used their soapy sponge to draw a heart in the deep sepia stains.

I’m thinking about the house we bought in 2002 from a family of five smokers. Professional painters wore quasi-Hazmat gear to apply a special sealant over the nicotine stains on the nine-foot, stippled ceilings before re-painting.

Back home I do some research. Some salient points according to the Mayo Clinic

  • Third-hand smoke is generally considered to be residual nicotine and other chemicals left on a variety of indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke. This residue is thought to react with common indoor pollutants to create a toxic mix. This toxic mix … contains cancer-causing substances, posing a potential health hazard to non-smokers who are exposed to it, especially children.
  • In contrast, second-hand smoke is the smoke and other airborne products that come from being close to burning tobacco products, such as cigarettes.
  • Third-hand smoke builds up over time and resists normal cleaning. It can’t be eliminated by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air conditioners, or confining smoking to only certain areas of a home.
  • Infants, children and non-smoking adults may be at risk of tobacco-related health problems when they inhale, ingest or touch substances containing third-hand smoke.

Related Articles:

Scientific American: What is third-hand smoke? Is it hazardous?