Public Transportation and Third-Hand Smoke: Risks for Travelers

Passengers of public transportation systems are susceptible to the dangerous chemicals in second and third-hand smoke. Drivers can help to eliminate this risk of exposure by not smoking before or during work, or by quitting altogether.

public transportation

As the risks of third-hand smoke become more apparent, officials are concerned about the possible health implications it might have on travelers who use public transportation for their daily commutes. The enclosed spaces of buses, subway cars, and taxi cabs make those in the vehicles especially susceptible to poor air quality and the possible health issues it causes.

What is Third-Hand Smoke?

Third-hand smoke is a term used to describe the nicotine and smoke residue left behind after someone smokes. This residue cling to clothes, curtains, upholstery, hair, and other soft, porous surfaces. When the surfaces are moved or disturbed, the residue can reenter the air where it can be inhaled by those in the area. Smoke residue contains many of the same harmful substances as cigarette smoke. This includes up to 7,000 chemicals, many of which are known to cause cancer in humans. While the amount inhaled may be minimal compared to smokers or those who are exposed to second-hand smoke, the Surgeon General warns that there is no safe level of smoke exposure. This is especially true for children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What are the Risks of Third-Hand Smoke Exposure?

The risks of being exposed to third-hand smoke are similar to those for smokers. Increased chance of lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, and reduced lung capacity are all risks. Increased asthma, allergies, respiratory infections, and ear infections are also common in children. It has also been shown, according to the Scientific American, that exposure to any level of tobacco smoke may increase an infant’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Who is at Risk of Third-Hand Smoke Exposure?

Anyone who is around someone who has recently smoked may be at risk. Even if the person smokes outdoors, residue can still be carried inside on clothing or hair. The only way this could be prevented in smokers is if the person showered and removed their clothing after every smoke break. Children and the elderly are at an increased risk for complications from third-hand smoke exposure. Those with preexisting conditions may also be at a greater risk.

Why are Those who use Public Transportation at Increased Risk?

Those who use public transit such as buses, and other forms of public transportation like taxi cabs, may be at an increased risk of third-hand smoke exposure because these are very enclosed spaces with numerous other people during or before their commute. If the bus driver takes several smoke breaks throughout the day, he/she is bringing smoke residue into the bus after each of these incidents. This is compounded with any other passengers who may have also smoked recently before boarding the bus or subway car. Taxies may present even more risk, as the space is even smaller than other public transportation methods.

How can Passengers Protect Themselves?

There is no real way to protect one’s self from third-hand smoke when traveling via public transit. Those who must use public transportation can call and find out the smoking policies for drivers. Most buses and other public transportation systems do not allow smoking in the vehicle itself. Sitting near the door where fresh air enters regularly may also help to some degree. When possible, those in higher risk populations, such as pregnant women, children, and the elderly should avoid riding public transportation unless they know for certain no smokers will be riding.

How can Drivers Help Protect Passengers?

For those drivers who smoke during the day, there is no effective means of reducing all third-hand smoke exposure. One way to reduce risk is to smoke less often during the work day, or to avoid smoking before or during work hours. This isn’t always desirable for those who are addicted to tobacco products.

The only real way to fully reduce third-hand smoke risk is to stop smoking entirely. For those who are interested in this option, there are numerous stop smoking aids available.