Contaminated… emitting toxins

I’m not surprised when I see lazy scientific journalism in mainstream newspapers. Science is hard, I get it. We should demand better from Scientific American though. Yet here’s reporter Coco Ballantyne offering a full interview to Jonathan Winickoff, the doctor behind the “third hand smoke” study that made the New York Times a few weeks ago — a study that consisted entirely of calling random people on the phone and asking them what they believe about tobacco smoke.

After a mild concession from Stanton Glantz that there isn’t actually any evidence linking the remnants of tobacco smoke with disease, she gives Winickoff the floor:

How exactly do you distinguish between second- and third- hand smoke?

Third-hand smoke refers to the tobacco toxins that build up over time—one cigarette will coat the surface of a certain room [a second cigarette will add another coat, and so on]. The third-hand smoke is the stuff that remains [after visible or “second-hand smoke” has dissipated from the air]…. You can’t really quantify it, because it depends on the space…. In a tiny space like a car the deposition is really heavy…. Smokers [may] smoke in another room or turn on a fan. They don’t see the smoke going into a child’s nose; they think that if they cannot see it, it’s not affecting [their children].

Smokers themselves are also contaminated…smokers actually emit toxins [from clothing and hair].

Can we get this guy on the Daily Show please? Michael Siegel laments that statements like this will destroy the credibility of the tobacco control movement. Personally, I’m glad to see it happen. The deeper it descends into farce the sooner we’ll beat back nanny state intrusions.


More lazy tobacco reporting

I know, I know, you guys don’t come here just to read posts about tobacco regulation. We’ve got some non-smoking content coming soon. But first, this:

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.

Doctors from MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston coined the term “third-hand smoke” to describe these chemicals in a new study that focused on the risks they pose to infants and children. The study was published in this month’s issue of the journal Pediatrics…

Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician who heads the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said the phrase third-hand smoke is a brand-new term that has implications for behavior.

“The central message here is that simply closing the kitchen door to take a smoke is not protecting the kids from the effects of that smoke,” he said. “There are carcinogens in this third-hand smoke, and they are a cancer risk for anybody of any age who comes into contact with them.”

Among the substances in third-hand smoke are hydrogen cyanide, used in chemical weapons; butane, which is used in lighter fluid; toluene, found in paint thinners; arsenic; lead; carbon monoxide; and even polonium-210, the highly radioactive carcinogen that was used to murder former Russian spy Alexander V. Litvinenko in 2006. Eleven of the compounds are highly carcinogenic.

Are blankets in your home killing your baby? Is your jacket radioactive? These sound like the kind of hyped teasers you’d see on local TV news, but this is from New York Times reporter Roni Caryn Rabin. Note that, as usual, there’s no source in the article to counter that these researchers might be going a bit overboard in their claims. But worse is that the article gives so much credence to the study itself. How was it conducted?

The study reported on attitudes toward smoking in 1,500 households across the United States… The data was collected in a national random-digit-dial telephone survey done between September and November 2005. The sample was weighted by race and gender, based on census information.

That’s right, the study did no epidemiological research whatsoever. It consisted entirely of phoning up random people and asking them what they believe about the dangers of tobacco smoke. For this they received completely uncritical coverage in one of the nation’s best newspapers and a chance to repeat their sweeping claims about “third-hand smoke.” As long as scientists say bad things about tobacco, it seems that they can literally just make stuff up and expect compliant reporters to hype their findings.

The authors do cite one other study that claims a link between exposure to ambient chemicals from tobacco smoke and lower cognitive performance in children, though there are reasons to doubt the results. And good parents probably shouldn’t swaddle their babies in blankets that reek of tobacco smoke. But given that smokers spend decades inhaling cigarette smoke directly into their lungs before major health problems set in, it’s going to require very rigorous findings to conclude that simply having smoky clothing in the same room as a child is harmful. The study here doesn’t even make an attempt.

The worst aspect of these doctors’ propaganda is that it will be used to further demonize smokers. Just as non-smokers who used to view brief exposure to secondhand smoke as a mere annoyance now believe it takes years off their lives, casual readers of this article will believe that being caught in an elevator with a person who smells like smoke is going to turn them into Alexander Litvinenko. Mothers and fathers who take the utmost care to smoke only far away from their children will be shunned as bad parents for smoking at all. It will no longer be enough for smokers to stand outside in the cold and rain 25 feet from any door or window; the mere aromatic evidence that one has been smoking will become an affront to civilized society.

I’m going to go ahead and complete the circle by coining my own term: fourth-hand smoke. That’s the first-hand smoke you’re exposed to when you’re so annoyed by society’s growing nannyism that you take up smoking just out of spite. My first cigarette (of very few) was lit in protest of DC’s smoking ban several years ago. I’m sure there are others whose rebellion has drawn them to their very first taste of tobacco. Maybe I’ll call up some random people and see if they feel the same way. New York Times coverage will be right around the corner.

[Big thanks to Rumors Daily for the link. See also the take at TennesseeFree, thanks to Chad.]