11/01/09 What the Researcher Didn’t Say About Thirdhand Smoke

Many of you are no doubt aware of the third hand smoke reports that have been making the rounds lately, and it is a sad testament to our current situation that such a ridiculous notion can get any media coverage let alone be bandied around as fact.

There are, as ever, numerous problems with the third hand smoke report.  The NY Times reported the story [1], as did the Telegraph and now various others.  The first problem is that no study was carried out – a phone survey was done asking if people thought third hand smoke was a health hazard – and used the results to determine that it is.  It does not matter one iota to the ‘researchers’ that they have no evidence whatsoever – no study, no scientific material, nothing to back up their claim that third hand smoke is dangerous.  Lead researcher Dr. Jonathan Winickoff stated “Your nose isn’t lying,” he said. “The stuff is so toxic that your brain is telling you: ’Get away.’”  How ridiculous can it get?  This is akin to saying that when you smell foods your brain is saying they are toxic and to refrain from ingesting it.

Unlike other reports debunking the third hand smoke scare tactic, which are in abundance across the internet, I am going to delve into Dr. Winickoff’s past to expose his agenda and why we cannot trust a word he says. According to Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center [2] Dr. Winickoff currently chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics Tobacco Consortium, with 15 peer-reviewed publications regarding tobacco control in child healthcare settings. He is the Harvard site PI for the Julius Richmond Center of Excellence, Addressing the Secondhand smoke Exposure of Children, and has drafted key tobacco control policy for the AMA, AAP, and the APA.  He serves as scientific advisor to the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program, and has developed a program called CEASE: the Clinical Effort Against Secondhand Smoke Exposure.

Note how this all centres on ‘tobacco control’ rather than tobacco analysis.  Clearly then, not a man we can trust and not a man with an objective outlook on study.

Having read the NY Times article I decided to dig around for Dr. Winickoff’s contact details and get in touch with some questions. In my first email I wrote:

“[C]an you please tell me how you gathered the information that tobacco smoke was still harmful the next day? The article makes no mention of any experiment conducted to monitor air levels, nor is there any epidemiological evidence of illness from exposure to third hand smoke. In fact, as you admit yourself, third-hand smoke is a brand new term. I am curious to what research has been done to warrant a new term, and how we know the threat is real and not just an attempt of fear-mongering or, potentially, a way of legislating a ban outdoors.

To this email I received a prompt reply:

“Basically, the study found that IF you believe that thirdhand smoke is harmful to infants and children, then you were much more likely to have a home smoking ban. The 1500 page surgeon generals report from 2006 concluded that there was no risk-free level of tobacco smoke exposure.


The outrageous lie that there is no risk free level of tobacco smoke exposure is something that has long been irking me, for it is entirely false.  Are we to believe that sitting next to someone for 30 seconds while they smoke is more dangerous than holding uranium?  Apparently so.  I wrote back:

“If I may summarise then: a ‘study’ was conducted which asked, basically, what lengths smokers went to to restrict children and infants from breathing second-hand smoke, correct? Why, then, does this warrant heightened fear-mongering and a whole new description for what is a non-existent threat (third-hand smoke)? You cannot claim that third-hand smoke even exists unless you have conducted experiments on air quality, which you did not – and even OSHA air quality tests show second hand smoke to fall well within the limit for safe levels of air toxins.
The 2006 Surgeon General’s report did, indeed, conclude that – however, that does not make it so. Are you telling me that, as an educated researcher, that tobacco smoke is more dangerous than radiation?  If you are in agreement with the SG ’06 report then that is what you are saying, because radiation, despite causing cancer in ALL animals tested (except, curiously, those exposed to tobacco smoke) still has a recognised safe limit. Tobacco, which has been smoked for millennia and currently has billions of users worldwide, is more dangerous?”


I received a very underwhelming response:

“OK, I see that you are unconvinced and that is your right. Thirdhand smoke is just a term to describe that smell you have in your nose after the cigarette is extinguised…The thinking is that just because you cannot see the visible smoke, the toxins are still there.”

Aha! The truth at last. Thirdhand smoke is just a term to describe smell – but a term that will serve very well to instill fear in smokers and non-smokers.  It is also a term that has the capacity to prevent smokers working with children, so no more smoking babysitters, teachers, and maybe even nurses. 

This man is running around telling anyone who will listen that third hand smoke is a very real threat when he is simultaneously admitting that it is, actually, just smell.  Curiously, he ignored my following emails – a sure sign he knows he is talking rubbish and is running on luck to not get caught.

Now, remember Winickoff’s earlier statement: “The stuff is so toxic that your brain is telling you: ’Get away.’”  A strong smell indicates toxicity does it?  I guess no more eating onions or garlic then.  Anyway, since when did tobacco smoke smells send people running? It doesn’t, the smell is less pungent than plenty of other things we happily use, so his argument doesn’t even qualify as ‘thin’, I think transparent is a better term.

So another piece of bad journalism for smoking then, but as if that’s not enough the NY Times finish the article with this:

“Among the substances in third-hand smoke are…polonium-210, the highly radioactive carcinogen that was used to murder former Russian spy Alexander V. Litvinenko in 2006.”

Clearly this journalist is unfamiliar with doses – undiluted vinegar, acetic acid, can kill us.  Shall I run to the papers and warn people of the dangers of vinegar? No, because vinegar is actually very beneficial to us.  Too much water will kill us.  Too much anything can kill us.  What the journalist fails to mention is that polonium-210 is in tobacco not because it is added, but because tobacco grows in the ground, polonium-210 is found worldwide in every crop harvested.  So no more eating carrots, broccoli, potatoes, or anything else from the ground.  Worried about the benzene in cigarettes? Oops, better lay off the tap water then – there’s more benzene in one glass of water than one cigarette. Televisions emit radiation, but we all happily watch them.  The simple fact is that the amount of any chemicals in cigarette smoke is absolutely tiny, they are bearly measurable.  As for the Polonium-210, they neglect to mention that it is in all earth-grown produces, including vegetables.  It appears in tobacco smoke simply because tobacco is a plant, and as such receives the Polonium-210 content from the soil and fertilisers used to help it grow.

From the horse’s mouth the third hand smoke scare is nothing but lies and irresponsible outpouring of false information.  Don’t believe the hype.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/03/health/research/03smoke.html?_r=1&em
[2] http://www.dfhcc.harvard.edu/membership/member-profile/member/9653/0/

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