Cancer: You can increase your risk just by touching someone else’s clothes suggests study

LBC caller says her friend was told she has cancer on the phone

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What is thirdhand smoke?

Most people are familiar with first and second hand smoking. Firsthand smoking is the act of smoking a cigarette. Meanwhile, secondhand smoking is the act of breathing in the smoke of a smoker, for example, as one walks past them.

Thirdhand smoking occurs when particles from cigarette smoke get trapped in materials including clothes, furniture, carpets, and hair. Subsequently, anyone near these materials could breathe in these particles.

It is the impact of breathing in these particles that the researchers from California’s Berkeley Lab were studying. They found those who breathed in these particles had 86 times higher levels of toxic compounds in their system.

The study reached its conclusion after asking three non-smokers to wear the clothes of heavy smokers for three hours. After this period, their urine was tested for the presence of carcinogens.

Furthermore, this isn’t the only study to show that thirdhand smoke can have a negative impact on cancer risk. Another study found the same carcinogens, when exposed to lung tissue, caused DNA damage.

The reason why this result was significant is because DNA damage, such as the type observed in the study, is one of the main triggers of cancer.

What is in thirdhand smoke?

First, second, and thirdhand smoke are each inherently made of the same toxins; however, their makeup changes as the smoke changes.

Thirdhand smoke is made up of nicotine particles and other chemicals which settle out of smoking and into other materials. As well as nicotine, these chemicals include cotinine and NNK.

What are cotinine and NNK?

Cotinine is a by-product of nicotine which develops when metabolised in the body while NNK is another by-product of tobacco, one which encourages the development of cancer. Both are thought to combine with other pollutants in the air to form carcinogens.

Speaking about the research, lead author Doctor Xiaochen Tang said: “Nicotine is released in large amounts during smoking, and it coats all indoor surfaces, including human skin.”

Meanwhile, medic at the University of California Neal Benowitz added: “These findings illustrate the potential health impacts of thirdhand smoke, which contains not only TSNAs but hundreds of other chemicals, some of which are also known carcinogens.”

Mr Benowitz added: “Next steps for this research will explore in more detail the mechanisms of adverse health effects associated with tobacco and cannabis residues, effective remediation strategies, and translation of scientific findings to tobacco control practice.”

What are the most common forms of cancer?

While there are over 200 forms of cancer worldwide, some are more common than others. In the UK, the most common forms of the disease are breast, lung, bowel, and prostate cancer.

What role does smoking play?

Smoking is the most well known carcinogen and plays a particularly key role in any cancers which affect the respiratory system such as lung cancer where it is responsible for around 70 percent of cases.

Globally, smoking is a major risk factor. A recent study found it, drinking alcohol, and obesity were responsible for nearly half of all cancer deaths.

Doctor Christopher Murray of the University of Washington said: “Smoking continues to be the leading risk factor for cancer globally, with other substantial contributors to cancer burden varying.” Smoking was considered to be responsible for around 36.9 percent of global cancer deaths.

Subsequently, it is believed that if more people quit smoking, the number of people who died from cancer would drop considerable. However, this isn’t as simple as it sounds.


Smoking is addictive and like all addictive substances, is very hard to quit. It is for this reason that there are a bevy of resources available for those looking to quit.

The NHS provides a range of services to help someone quite smoking including medication and one-to-one services which can guide someone through what can be a difficult period of withdrawal.

Stop smoking adviser trainer Jennifer Percivals said of the services: “Overall, you’re up to three times more likely to stop smoking for good if you use a combination of stop smoking treatment and receive support from an NHS Stop Smoking Service.”

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