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Toxicity lingers after tobacco smoke clears, UC research program finds

Thirdhand smoke is a new frontier, and UC’s Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program has assembled a consortium of investigators to study the health risks caused by the remnants of cigarette smoke.

The stale smell of cigarette smoke moves many a traveler to request a smoke-free hotel room. Who wants to smell someone else’s bad habit? But the lingering odor may be telling us something else — something more troubling.

Research funded by the UC-run Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP) shows that long after smoke has cleared from a room, toxic pollutants from cigarette smoke adhere to bedspreads, carpets, clothing — even furniture, walls, ventilation systems and hallways of hotels that allow smoking. Similar toxicants cling to surfaces in rental cars driven by smokers.

Byproducts of cigarette burning produce potent carcinogens when they combine with common indoor compounds. Many can remain in rooms for months.

“In the 1950s, we found that smoking could kill you; then research in the ’80s and ’90s showed that secondhand smoke is dangerous,” said Georg Matt, a psychology professor of at San Diego State University who focuses on policies to protect nonsmokers.

“The potential health risks of what we call thirdhand smoke are only now being studied. This is a new frontier.”

Matt is a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at UC San Diego and an investigator in a new thirdhand smoke research effort by the TRDRP.

The TRDRP funded the research consortium in 2011 to bring together experts in a range of fields, from toxicology and chemistry to behavioral and policy research, in order to determine the scope of thirdhand smoke risk and help develop policies to protect people where needed.

Consortium researchers presented their findings on thirdhand smoke at the  “Linking Tobacco Control Research and Practice for a Healthier California” conference held April 10-12 in Sacramento. The conference was sponsored by TRDRP and the state’s Tobacco Control Program.

“We don’t yet know the degree of risk, but we are already finding that indoor smoking leaves a nearly indelible imprint,” Matt said. “We need to find out what risk this pollution poses.”

Risks to infants and toddlers are of particular concern to consortium scientists. Young children crawl on rugs and carpets and often put their hands in their mouths. They have more contact with pollutants that cling to surfaces in the home.

An infant’s developing brain is very susceptible to low levels of toxins, and immature immune systems are particularly vulnerable to persistent pollutants. Researchers suspect that children with respiratory diseases like asthma are likely to be at highest risk.

“This is a newly emerging concern, but one we think is very important to study,” said Anwer Mujeeb, program officer for TRDRP’s thirdhand smoke research effort. “We are leading the way in research to learn how these pollutants form, how long they remain and how they interact. Of course, it’s critical to determine at what concentrations they pose a threat to health.”

TRDRP is funded by California state cigarette taxes and managed by UC. The program launched the thirdhand smoke research consortium with $3.35 million to support a range of investigations.

“We’re very fortunate to have in California scientists who are already making an impact in tobacco research,” said Mujeeb. “The research goes hand in hand with efforts to reduce the number of people who take up smoking in the first place.”

For Wallace Ravven’s complete story, including video, go to the UC Research website.

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