Thirdhand Smoke May Damage Your DNA

Study shows problems go beyond smelly clothes

white cigarette smoke on black background

Cigarette smoke lives on long after you take your last drag of the day. The smell lingers on your clothes, on the furniture, on the curtains and elsewhere. But new research suggests the problem may be bigger than just a smell.

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Research published in the journal Mutagenesis has made headlines recently by focusing on this “thirdhand” smoke. The results show that the chemicals thirdhand smoke leave behind can damage DNA in human cells. Damaged DNA is a risk factor for disease.

The research has its limits, but it is also the first study of its kind. It may offer yet another reason to give up a dangerous habit.

“The study and the resulting headlines might cause smokers to reconsider the damage they do to themselves and the people around them.”

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Charis Eng, MD, PhD

Founding Chairwoman of the Genomic Medicine Institute

The lingering effect on DNA

In the study, researchers simulated short-term and long-term exposure to thirdhand smoke. Then they used common genetic assays on human cells to show that such exposure — especially the long-term, chronic kind — can cause damage and breaks in DNA.

Certain cells are like the copy editors of your DNA. They scour your DNA searching for errors, and they repair the damage they find. These copy-editor cells normally do a good job, but sometimes the damage comes too fast and too frequently for them to keep up.

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That appears to be the case with thirdhand smoke. It hangs around and continues to cause damage. In the long-term, that damage could lead to mutations, and eventually to cancer and other types of disease.

The limits of the research

This study was performed on human cells in a lab, but not on actual humans. That means the cells couldn’t take full advantage of the body’s natural defenses against DNA damage.

This study still offers a good starting point, though. Showing that thirdhand smoke can affect DNA in a negative way should spur further research.

Perhaps most important, the study and the resulting headlines might cause smokers to reconsider the damage they do to themselves and the people around them.

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Charis Eng, MD, PhD

Charis Eng, MD, PhD is founding chairwoman of the Genomic Medicine Institute and founding director of its Center for Personalized Genetic Healthcare. Dr. Eng is a global leader in cancer genetics and cancer genomic medicine.