Second- & Third-Hand Smoke in the Workplace

No-smoking policies don't help with the problem of third-hand smoke.
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Nobody likes to walk into an office that smells like an old ashtray. Firsthand smoke is the smoke inhaled directly by a smoker. Secondhand smoke is the smoke inhaled by people in the presence of someone who is smoking. Third-hand smoke is the gases and particles that cling to the hair of smokers or to furnishings and walls in a room -- the old ashtray smell. All can be harmful, especially to someone who is sensitive to smoke or who already has breathing problems.

Air Pollution

    Smoke contains all sorts of toxic stuff. Nicotine reacts with gases, such as ozone, which results in cancer-causing compounds. Lead, often found in cigarettes, can damage children’s brains. Other smoke compounds include formaldehyde, benzene, arsenic, the toxic metal beryllium and toluene, which is a toxic solvent. Smokers get all this stuff straight into their lungs every time they inhale, a reason that cigarettes are called “cancer sticks.” Smoking literally pollutes the air in the workplace.

Sidestream Smoke

    Secondhand smoke can be exhaled by a smoker or can be the smoke that comes from a burning cigarette. The latter is called sidestream smoke, and it is actually more harmful to you because it’s loaded with substances that cause cancer. In addition, sidestream smoke has smaller particles, which your body can absorb more easily. Secondhand smoke can cause cancer in non-smokers, which is why many states have banned smoking in places where workers may be subjected to secondhand smoke exposure from clients or customers.

Third-Hand Smoke

    When smoking is allowed inside the workplace, even if the building has a good air-filtration system, compounds such as tar, oils and wax compounds can build up on surfaces. If you’ve ever moved into a house previously occupied by smokers, you know that paint, new carpeting and cleaning may not be enough to remove the lingering odor -- an odor that indicates risk from third-hand smoke. The workplace is no different, and even though third-hand smoke is less risky than smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, it can still cause problems for people with heart or breathing problems.

Smoke-Free Workplaces

    Ideally, no one would smoke at work, even on a break. Unfortunately, smoking is addictive, and people who are hooked are probably not thinking about what will happen to their coworkers who must inhale the residue of their smoking habit. As of 2012, 36 states have enacted no-smoking laws for workplaces, restaurants, bars and places where people gamble to help reduce exposure to secondhand smoke, according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. These laws, however, have no effect on third-hand smoke exposure if employees come back in from a smoke break reeking of nicotine.


    Although an organization may implement a smoke-free policy, to really clean up the facility requires a major effort. Scrubbing walls and carpets can help, but in rooms where the odor of smoke still lingers after cleaning, it may actually be necessary to replace the wallboard. If your organization isn't smoke-free, avoid areas where smokers congregate; ask for a smoke-free break room; use fans or open a window to improve ventilation; and wash your clothing or other items that might be exposed to smoke.

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