Belmont Club

The new leprosy

The New York Times lays the groundwork for a campaign that’s just waiting to happen. The new menace is Third Hand Smoke, a danger so great that you instinctively fear it even if you’ve never heard of it.

Parents who smoke often open a window or turn on a fan to clear the air for their children, but experts now have identified a related threat to children’s health that isn’t as easy to get rid of: third-hand smoke.

That’s the term being used to describe the invisible yet toxic brew of gases and particles clinging to smokers’ hair and clothing, not to mention cushions and carpeting, that lingers long after second-hand smoke has cleared from a room. The residue includes heavy metals, carcinogens and even radioactive materials that young children can get on their hands and ingest, especially if they’re crawling or playing on the floor.

Third Hand Smoke is almost more terrifying than the original sin itself. It’s a danger to children; undetectable, creeping, insidious. You can’t wash it off. It’s a lifestyle crime.

Third-hand smoke is what one smells when a smoker gets in an elevator after going outside for a cigarette, he said, or in a hotel room where people were smoking. “Your nose isn’t lying,” he said. “The stuff is so toxic that your brain is telling you: ’Get away.’” …

Since the term is so new, the researchers asked people if they agreed with the statement that “breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.” Only 65 percent of nonsmokers and 43 percent of smokers agreed with that statement, which researchers interpreted as acknowledgement of the risks of third-hand smoke.

I’ve never smoked a single cigarette in my life. My father did, and died at 88 from lung cancer. It seems perfectly reasonable to believe that smoking is bad for your health. I’m not a fan of tobacco. But there’s something slightly unsettling in the sight of furtive groups puffing hurriedly away in alleys behind buildings or at designated streetcorners outside offices. How long now before smokers carry the same stigma that people with VD or tuberculosis once had? How long before we hear the scream, “there’s a smoker!”?