Recently, health professionals have become concerned about something referred to as third hand smoke, especially its potential impact on children. Here’s what we know. According to a report from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, part of Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital in Lebanon, New Hampshire, if someone smokes just one cigarette in a room the size of a bedroom or hotel guestroom with the doors closed, it takes about two hours for smoke particulates such as nicotine in the air to return to levels that are no longer harmful.
But what happens to that nicotine? Does it just break down or dissolve during that two-hour period? No. What happens is it begins to collect on chairs, furniture, clothing, and because it is the biggest sponge in the room, in the carpet. Many times the nicotine combines with other chemicals, making it an even greater health risk. These residues of nicotine collect over time and that’s one reason why a hotel guest room in which smoking is allowed can develop a cigarette odor. These reservoirs of nicotine on furniture and carpet are examples of third hand smoke.
We know these toxins exist and we know how they can be transmitted to humans. What researchers do not know is just how much constitutes a harmful dose and what negative health effects these harmful doses can cause. The assumption is that it can be considerable.
As to how these toxins come into contact with humans, it is not just through inhalation but through touch. Touching the upholstery on a chair that has a heavy concentration of nicotine collected in the fabric fibers can transfer toxins through the skin. Worse, according to the Norris Cotton Cancer Center research report, “children are most vulnerable to third hand smoke exposure.”
There are several reasons why children may be more vulnerable to third hand smoke. One is simply the fact that their immune systems are not fully developed, which means they have fewer and less-developed defenses. Another reason is that they have what the Center calls “smaller body mass,” which means less fat, and they stand closer to the carpet where much of the nicotine reservoirs have collected. Further, children breathe faster than adults, so they are at greater risk of possibly inhaling nicotine gas emitted from the furniture and carpet.
But the key reason is that they are more likely to touch surfaces where these toxin reservoirs are located. In a hotel guest room, for instance, young children often play on the carpet. As they play, they probably touch the lower portions of cushions, drapes, or the fabric on chairs, all of which also house the toxins.
There is also the possibility that they will ingest these invisible toxins. Children are very likely to put their fingers into their mouths. If the toxins have built up on carpet and fabrics, they have likely transferred to the hands and fingers of the children during their play.
The bottom line is that we now know third hand smoke exists and has the potential to cause serious problems especially for children, the most vulnerable. To address this, we essentially have two options: ban all smoking in hotel guest rooms as well as any other commercial facilities that allow smoking area. The other option is to properly clean carpet, upholstery, and other surfaces where the nicotine builds up. And that’s where housekeepers come in.
When it comes to cleaning carpet, upholstered furniture, and other fabric items in a facility, we typically follow one of two protocols:
In most cases, we follow the second option and decide when to clean carpets based on their appearance. However, when it comes to nicotine reservoirs in carpet and fabrics, we have a big problem: it is invisible, as referenced earlier.2 This means subjective cleaning programs are out the window. Instead, in guest rooms or other areas where smoking is allowed, it is best to follow some type of schedule depending on how frequently the area is used and by how many people. This could be anywhere from once a week to every few months.
As to actual cleaning procedures, one of the most effective ways to clean carpets and remove third hand smoke is the use of aqueous ozone cleaning systems. These systems remove odors, which is also something we need when dealing with nicotine.
Aqueous ozone is created mechanically through the interaction of electricity and oxygen in a “fill station” unit that can be attached to a sink in a janitorial closet or from an upright system, often referred to as a “Caddy.” Using a traditional carpet extractor, the aqueous ozone can then be poured into a sprayer, pre-sprayed over the carpet, and then extracted. If using a caddy system, the caddy may be used as an extractor by simply attaching a wand.
Our focus here has been to discuss the fact that third hand smoke tends to find a home in carpet, furniture, and fabrics. We should also add that it can build up on walls and ceilings.
Aqueous ozone once again can be very effective to clean these areas. If using a traditional cleaning solution please note: this may require a two-step process: first clean the wall with a cleaning solution and then apply a disinfectant or sanitizer. Also, while a child may not be able to touch the ceiling, nicotine reservoirs on the ceiling can be the source of smoke odors, which the aqueous ozone will eradicate.
While we do not know exactly how harmful third hand smoke is and in what quantities it becomes a health threat, we do know there are ways to eradicate it before it does harm. In all facilities that allow smoking – including residences – just be aware that third hand smoke is real, an issue we should be concerned about, but something we fortunately can tackle.
1“Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 24, 2014
2 In some cases, nicotine build-up on a carpet will turn the carpet yellow over time and/or a nicotine smell will be noticeable. These are the only noticeable signs of nicotine build-up but typically they develop after long periods of time.