What The Researcher Didn’T Say About Third Hand Smoke
I received a very under-whelming response:
Despite the study authors’ obvious pride in thinking they’ve “coined” a new term with third-hand smoke, the idea has been around for quite a while. I wrote about it five years ago in “Brains” (p. 213): “On the family level, homes are disrupted as one parent joins the ranks of the Innocents or the Neurotics and comes to believe that the other is attacking the health of their children. This familial destruction can happen even if the offender smokes only outside, as Antismokers frighten worried spouses with the idea that burrowing molecules of “toxic smoke” are carried in on clothing and then leap out to cause “mini lung cancers” in children. One Crusader urged parents to “pretend that smoke carries HIV and clean your home accordingly,” while expressing concern about new particles carried in on clothing.”
Over the last three days I’ve read dozens of news stories about this new “study” (I’m putting the term in quotes because an article about several antismokers looking at an opinion survey about peoples’ beliefs and fears and then spinning that look into the appearance of a scientific study about real medical health threats hardly qualifies as a real “study”) and virtually none of them seemed to understand the difference between polling people’s opinions and actually studying scientific reality.
Yes, articles by people like Sullum ( http://www.reason.com/blog/show/130926.html ), Siegel ( http://tobaccoanalysis.blogspot.com/ ), Hitt ( http://www.davehitt.com/blog2/third-hand-smoke/ ) and Snowden ( http://www.velvetgloveironfist.com/index.php?page_id=67 ) understood and explained the difference, but the journalistic sources that 95% of the population depends on for its news blasted the public mind with the idea that “Third Hand Smoke Is Deadly!” – a complete fabrication based upon the spin of an opinion survey and offhand thoughts of those who wrote an analysis of that survey.
The New York Times was one of the worst offenders of the bunch as their story not only repeated a list of what’s in the “toxic brew” that children of smokers would be exposed to without offering any critical thoughts as to the medical meaning of the extent of such exposures, but added the editorial note that one of the “radioactive materials” assaulting them would be Polonium 210, “the highly radioactive carcinogen that was used to murder former Russian spy Alexander V. Litvinenko in 2006.” They also went on to add a quote from a medical expert warning that such elements “are a cancer risk for anybody of any age who comes into contact with them.”
Of course any parent worthy of the term and without other sources of information would naturally rush to make sure that their children never came into contact with smokers who might give their children cancer. What the article irresponsibly fails to mention however is that the *amount* of Polonium 210 that a child might be exposed to is so vanishingly small that it would take literally trillions of years for such a child to hit the level that did in the scurrilous Russian. To incite fear in parents over such a thing actually goes beyond irresponsibility: it becomes rank yellow journalism, something that a paper like the Times should be above.
Of course anyone can make mistakes. Even the NY Times. But what separates the men from the boys in such an area is the fact that men are willing to come forward to admit and correct those mistakes. Has the Times shown itself to be such a “man” in the world of journalism? Apparently not. People sometimes send me copies of things they’ve written about particularly hot topics. I had written a letter to the Times as soon as I’d read the article, but over the next few days I received emails from other folks who had also written, about a half dozen submitted letters in all.
Has the Times contacted any for permission to print their letters and thereby make at least a weak stab toward correcting the damage it has done? Nope. Nada. Zilch. Nothing. Not a word. The Times has not deemed a single one worthy of public airing. I contacted the authors of those letters and asked if they would like their letters published in the Club newsletter. Three of them have said yes, and I will reprint their letters below and then print mine along with its supporting documentation.
Judge for yourself: Has the NY Times lived up to its supposed standard of being a reliable paragon of journalistic excellence? Or have they sunk completely into the mixing of editorial opinion and news reporting that would get a high-school journalism student a failing grade?
Letter to the NY Times from Dave Hitt:
old, and offer proof that consisted entirely of a phone survey about
what people believed, I doubt you’d print it in the “Research”
section. Yet that is exactly what you did with your article “A New
Cigarette Hazard: ‘Third-Hand Smoke'” Dr. Winickoff made a lot of
claims, but didn’t offer a shred of evidence to back them up. All he
had was his phone survey. The wording of your article strongly
implies that his study backed his claims, when it did no such thing.
readers. And you should be ashamed of yourself.
Letter to the NY Times from Nathaniel Millard:
I am writing to take issue with the article published in the Research
section of the New York Times on Saturday, January 3, 2009. “A New
Cigarette Hazard: ‘Third-Hand Smoke'”.
think the scent of residual cigarette smoke is hazardous are more
likely to enforce a strict smoking ban at home. It also mentions that
certain carcinogens are present in smoke residue. Nowhere does it show
that third hand smoke is actually hazardous. Furthermore, your
newspaper recently published an editorial decrying the influence of
the pharmaceutical industry on clinical research at the Massachusetts
General Hospital. Dr. Winickoff’s profile suggests that he is hardly a
concerned pediatrician who happened upon the deadly effects of
third-hand smoke. To the contrary, a recent study authored by him in
the journal Pediatrics suggests that his primary goal is to get
parents to switch to nicotine replacement therapy by persuading them
that they are killing their children, even if they don’t smoke
anywhere near them. It is interesting to note that Johnson and
Johnson, which you implicated in the earlier editorial, owns the major
producers of nicotine replacement therapies and Pfizer, manufacturer
of the potentially deadly anti-smoking drug Chantix, was a sponsor of
the 2007 National Conference on Tobacco or Health.
exposing the unethical influence of the pharmaceutical industry on
medical research, but I guess ethical standards do not apply to
Letter to the NY Times from Richard White:
Letter from Michael J. McFadden to the NY Times:
Roni Rabin’s Jan. 3rd article, “A New Cigarette Hazard: ‘Third-Hand Smoke’ ” confused science with opinion survey. The study did not “focus on the risks posed to infants and children.” It focused on people’s beliefs: a very big difference. The article then extended statements by the study authors in a way designed to raise unreasonable fears among parents.
In two separate places in the story, including the spotlight ending paragraph, the article highlights the threat to children from radioactive polonium in “third-hand smoke.” For a child to absorb the featured “dose that was used to murder former Russian spy Alexander V. Litvinenko” that child would have to thoroughly lick clean a ten square feet of flooring each and every day for 2.74 trillion years: 274 times the age of the known universe. The actual “threat” posed to a child from normal exposures is less than the “threat” posed to such a child by an occasional beam of sunshine sneaking through a window. To even use the language of “threat” or “danger” in this regard is wildly misleading.
Supporting documentation argument for claims made in the McFadden letter submitted to the Times editors:
From http://www.acsa.net/HealthAlert/RadioBacco.html we see: “the intake of 210Po (polonium) by a typical smoker is about 0.72 pCi (picocuries) per pack of 20 cigarettes.” and from MSNBC: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2006/11/29/16270.aspx we see: “Litvinenko is thought to have been exposed to something around 5 millicuries”
Of course that’s secondhand smoke. The article referred to “third-hand smoke” absorption by a child from surfaces left over from past smoking. A reasonable estimate for the amount remaining stuck to the 10,000 squarefeet of walls, ceilings, furniture, floors, and draperies in a reasonably ventilated 2,000+ sq. ft home would almost certainly be less than 1%, but let’s assume that 1% actually does remain and spreads out over that 10,000 sq. ft. of surface. With 15 cigarettes having been smoked while the child was at school and the house then thoroughly aired out, we’d then have 1% of a half picocurie (i.e. 5 femtocuries) spread over that surface.
Let us suppose you don’t watch your child very carefully and further suppose the child deeply loves licking an entire 10 sq. ft. of floor sparkly clean every day during Jeopardy! That child will then have licked 1/1,000th of those 5 femtocuries into his system: 5 “attocuries.”
So, how long would it take such a child to get the “killing dose” of the 5 millicurie Russian that the Times article featured?
In 1,000 days our child would have licked up 5 femtocuries.
In one million days, 5 picocuries.
In one billion days, 5 nanocuries.
In one trillion days, 5 microcuries.
It would take one quadrillion days (2.74 trillion years) for that child to absorb 5 millicuries.
Unfortunately the universe is only 10 billion years old, so the child would have to lick floors for 274 cycles of our expanding universe to match our radioactive Russian.
Of course since he’d normally excrete most of that polonium we’d have to refuse to change his diaper until the end of that period… not a very pleasant thought.
And then there’s that whole annoying fact that the half life of polonium is only 138 days, so we’d just have to ignore the laws of physics as well in order to justify the story’s thesis.
Even if someone wanted to quibble with my estimates, changing 1% to 10%, or 10 sq ft to 100, or 15 cigarettes to 150 cigarettes per day… or even ALL THREE in attacking my argument… we’d STILL be talking three billion years of exposure along with a suspension of the laws of biology and physics.
Now do you see why I feel the concentration on this comparison was so misleading and needs to be corrected? Other elements in “third-hand smoke” might be somewhat more concentrated, but still nothing that wouldn’t demand thousands of years of assiduous tongue-licking.
Four critical responses to an article that cried out for critical responses… and not a single one deemed worthy of public display by the Times. Not a single one prompting a followup article by a Times reporter seeking to correct an egregious misrepresentation of the news. Not a single one prompting even a phone call to see if perhaps, just perhaps, something further should be done with regard to the story they’d run.
For those without internet access and interest in researching the topic the “Truth” as told by the NY Times remains: Hide Your Children From The Deadly Smokers! No more visits from Grandma or Uncle Al, even if they don’t smoke while visiting. And as far as daycare, kindergarten and school: pull them out TODAY, because even if the teacher doesn’t smoke, maybe her husband does, or if not, then you can rest assured that some of the other children come from homes with smokers and will be dragging radiation and cyanide and arsenic and formaldehyde into the classrooms to kill your little ones.
The Times should be ashamed. And if there’s any justice in the world perhaps they will someday be sued into nonexistence by families whose homes and lives will be disrupted by this despicable example of reportage.
P.S. To be fair, and to give some real credit where it’s deserved, I would like to say that the *only* fully accurate representation I found of the Winickoff study in the general or health media was at the UK National Health Services’ website at: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2009/01January/Pages/Thirdhandsmoke.aspx where they actually took pains to point out that this was nothing more than an analysis of public opinion and an examination of the potential behavioral effects of that opinion.
To the NHS: I am surprised AND impressed. Now I just wish you’d take it a step further and re-analyse some of your past statements regarding the “deadly threat” of SECOND hand smoke.
Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, a well-known and longstanding researcher into environmental tobacco smoke issues and respected author of the recently published “Hyping Health Risks”, has weighed in as well with substantial criticism of the Pediatrics study. His final point is worth special note,
“There are enough scientifically documented harmful effects of exposure to cigarette smoke without concocting catchy but uninformative concepts that, while likely to attract the attention of the jaded media and its audiences, confuse the important issues regarding the health effects from exposure to cigarette smoke. “
You can read the entirety of his comments at the Columbia University Press Blog Archive at:
Sandy Szwarc of JunkFood Science fame also had significant criticisms of this whole sordid affair, saying, “It is unfair of scientists and doctors to mock people who are terrified of Wi-Fi or who believe that chemtrails are spraying the world with invisible toxins that are harming them and their children, when these very same professionals spread similarly dubious scares. They fail the public, rather that adhere to the fundamentals of science and help consumers recognize myths from health risks that are real and things that are most important to help protect themselves and keep their children safe.” with her whole, very well thought out article.
Michael J. McFadden
Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”
Mid-Atlantic Regional Director, Citizens Freedom Alliance
Director, Pennsylvania Smokers Action Network (PASAN)
Jan. 9th, 2009
COLUMBUS, Georgia January 6, 2009 – The people who make, sell and enjoy premium cigars are wondering what all the recent fuss is about so-called third-hand smoke. It isn’t just that the issue is far-fetched and implausible, according to the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association, it’s that it was proposed years ago and few found it worth writing about until now. Why now?
“Everyone is making New Year’s resolutions at this time and this survey has given it a catchy name,” said Chris McCalla, legislative director for IPCPR which represents more than 2,000 cigar store owners and manufacturers of premium cigars around the world.
“When it was originally introduced in mid-2004, it was just another obscure survey. No one paid much attention to it because it was regarded as silly as saying we should ban nail polish because it smells bad long after it is applied. Now that it has been given a catchy name and its publication in the January issue of a magazine about children has been reported on by international news sources, Google is showing nearly one million results for ‘third-hand smoke’ occurring almost overnight,” he said.
The recent survey’s goal was to ‘find out if people who were aware of these harmful effects were less likely to smoke inside of their home,’ according to its author. McCalla said that was “a hypothesis that assumes that so-called third-hand smoke has ‘harmful effects’ which no one can seriously believe.”
McCalla suggested tongue-in-cheek that studies may next be done on fourth-hand and fifth-hand smoke, where people who touch the clothes worn by people who have touched the clothes worn by people who went to a cigar bar a week ago might be the object of scrutiny.
Getting serious again, McCalla pointed out that, when the original study was released nearly five years ago, neither the Surgeon General nor the Occupational Safety and Health Administration did much of anything about it.
“The Surgeon General’s report in 2006 called most of its findings inconclusive regarding the effects of secondhand smoke, so how could they move against so-called ‘third-hand smoke’ when the recent survey had nothing to do with its scientific aspects? Also, if ‘third-hand smoke’ should be of concern to anyone, why has OSHA not addressed the subject? In fact, OSHA issued allowable standards for secondhand smoke in the workplace that far exceed that which one may find in a typical cigar bar or restaurant.”
McCalla suggested that the best New Year’s resolution for people to adopt might be the application of common sense principles and respect for one another’s rights.
“Relax. These are stressful times. Enjoy a good cigar,” he said.
Read More: Third Hand Smoke Page 1