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Secondhand smoke: Touching a smoker’s clothes may increase cancer risk, study warns


The dangers of passive smoking have been known for decades, but now scientists are warning of a new threat – secondhand smoke.

Just handling a cigarette smoker’s clothes is enough to expose people to dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals, a US study has found.

Passive smoking is when someone else inhales the exhaled vapor or smoke from the end of a cigarette.

Secondhand smoke is created when particles from a cigarette penetrate materials such as hair, clothing, and furniture and carpets.

Government researchers at Berkeley Lab in California conducted a series of experiments on humans and mice.

In one study, three volunteers who did not smoke were asked to wear the clothes of a heavy cigarette user for three hours.

Tests showed they had up to 86 times higher levels of toxic compounds known as NNK and NNN in their urine after the experiment.

In another study, researchers exposed the same carcinogens to human lung tissue and showed that they can cause DNA damage—one of the triggers for cancer.

American scientists say that just handling a smoker's clothes is enough to put him at risk of cancer

American scientists say that just handling a smoker’s clothes is enough to put him at risk of cancer

According to a 2006 report by the US Surgeon General, second-hand smoke is thought to increase the risk of lung cancer in non-smokers by 20 to 30 percent.

However, less is known about the dangers of second-hand smoke and fewer studies have been conducted in this area.

A government team at Berkeley Lab in California first discovered in 2010 how smoking leaves microscopic toxic chemicals on surfaces.

But now, for the first time, they have shown the “potential health effects of secondhand smoke”.

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Third-hand smoke consists of particles of nicotine and other chemicals that settle from the smoke onto surfaces and materials.

In addition to residual nicotine, secondhand smoke contains cotinine and NNK.

Cotinine is a byproduct of nicotine that develops when it is metabolized. It is a known carcinogen.

NNK, another byproduct of tobacco smoke, is considered a particularly potent carcinogen.

Evidence suggests the chemical could damage DNA and promote cancer development.

Together, these substances can also interact with other air pollutants to create new, additional carcinogens.

The latest study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

In one experiment, mice were exposed to skin doses of NNK and NNN, another carcinogen found in tobacco.

Urine tests showed high levels of both chemicals in their system, suggesting that skin contact could lead to the compounds entering their bodies.

Even after the team stopped exposing the mice to the chemicals, they continued to accumulate in their bodies for another week.

They then tested how the chemicals interacted with human lung cells in the lab to see how likely they were to cause cancer.

Contact with the chemicals led to DNA damage – which can be a critical factor in the development of cancer.

In a third experiment, three volunteers wearing T-shirts and long-sleeved pants were exposed to cigarette smoke for 30 days, at concentrations similar to those found in the home of a daily smoker.

The volunteers were non-smokers and were not exposed to smoke at home or at work.

They wore the clothes for three hours and exercised enough to sweat for thirty minutes of every hour.

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Urine samples were collected before exposure and eight hours after the start of exposure

Each participant also completed a three-hour experiment in their normal clothing to establish a baseline.

The experiment was conducted in a room where the air was recycled almost once a minute to ensure that the chemicals were absorbed through the skin rather than the volunteers inhaling them.

The researchers found that levels of the chemical were 86 times higher in samples taken after wearing smoke-stained clothing.

Lead author Dr Xiaochen Tang, a researcher at Berkeley Lab, said: “Nicotine is released in large quantities when smoking and covers all internal surfaces, including human skin.”

Finally, the researchers measured the levels of NNK and NNN in the air of 37 smoking households and 19 non-smoking households.

The homes of the smokers found had more than “insignificant risk levels” set by the California Environmental Health Hazard Assessment Agency.

Levels were negligible in non-smoking homes.

Author Professor Neal Benowitz, a physician at the University of California, San Francisco, said: “These findings illustrate the potential health effects of secondhand smoke, which contains not only TSNA but hundreds of other chemicals, some of which are also known carcinogens.

“Next steps in this research will explore in more detail the mechanisms of adverse health effects associated with tobacco and cannabis residues, effective remedial strategies, and the translation of scientific knowledge into tobacco control practice.”

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