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Researchers are worried about COVID-19 transmission from asymptomatic smokers and vapers to others in their household via secondhand and thirdhand smoke and aerosol.
Let’s explore what this means.
Why Are Researchers Concerned about COVID-19 and Smoking?
Smokers are already at risk of more severe cases of coronavirus.
But even in the homes of asymptomatic but infected smokers and vapers, coronaviruses can attach to secondhand smoke and secondhand aerosol particles and droplets.
These viral secondhand exhalations, coughs, and sneezes can travel up to 27 feet, land on surfaces, survive for hours, and may increase transmission of COVID-19 to older and younger non-smokers in the home, according to researchers in Environmental Science and Technology.
That is because, after secondhand smoke and aerosol dissipates, thirdhand smoke and aerosol settles in dust and on surfaces. Thirdhand smoke clings to dust, clothes, furniture, drapes, walls, bedding, carpets, and other surfaces long after smoking has stopped, and builds up over time.
“Dust may contain [thirdhand smoke] particles that are larger than coronaviruses,” wrote the researchers, including E. Melinda Mahabee-Gittens and Ashley L. Merianos of the University of Cincinnati, and Georg E. Matt of San Diego State University. “Thus, [thirdhand smoke and thirdhand aerosol] may harbor COVID-19.”
That is bad news for older and younger members of the household.
“Infants and toddlers are at risk for [thirdhand smoke and thirdhand aerosol] exposure as they are in close bodily contact with their caregivers and are actively exploring their environments. They may touch, inhale, pick up, or ingest … infected particles, become infected, and subsequently infect older, at-risk family members,” the researchers wrote.
“Older adults are at risk of direct exposure from the secondhand route of inhalation and from thirdhand routes of inhalation, dermal transfer, and ingestion from dust and objects (e.g., wheelchairs) which harbor infected fomites.”
Why Does This Mean for People with Chemical Intolerance?
Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and about 70 that can cause cancer, according to the CDC.
Smoking is among the triggers of Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT).
As chemically-sensitive individuals face exposure to nanoparticles and other toxins, they develop a loss of tolerance to these substances. This is what patients call being “TILT-ed,” according to Dr. Claudia Miller, a professor emeritus of Environmental Medicine at the University of Texas and leader of the Hoffman TILT program at UT Health San Antonio.
One major low- or high-level exposure event can cause the initiation of TILT. Then, following low- or high-level exposures can result in recurring, worsening side effects.
- Difficulties with attention, memory
- Irritability and depression
- Digestive problems
- Allergy-like symptoms
- Migraines, headaches
- Fatigue, muscle pain
In the current coronavirus crisis, the ways these toxins impact health are similar to how they impact those who are TILT-ed.
“COVID-19 can hitchhike on aerosol particles contained in exhaled breath of symptomatic or asymptomatic smokers,” Miller said. “Smokers or vapers who live in a multifamily residence or work with non-smokers who share the same air pose a potential hazard to non-smoking occupants, especially the elderly and children. Tobacco smoke migrates throughout a building via interstitial spaces and the piston-like action of elevators.”
What Should People Do?
The researchers in Environmental Science and Technology wrote of the “urgent need to avoid all indoor vaping/smoking” amid COVID-19. This would prevent viral spread via exhaled mainstream smoke, on which coronavirus “hitches a ride,” and also protect vulnerable nonsmokers from exposure to infected secondhand and thirdhand smoke.
Miller from the Hoffman TILT program takes that a step further.
She urges immediate smoking bans inside multifamily dwellings, both to flatten the COVID-19 curve and address many of the adverse impacts of secondhand smoke on those who suffer from health problems ranging from TILT to chronic heart and lung conditions. For example, the San Antonio Housing Authority has long prohibited “residents from smoking indoors or away from designated outdoor spots at all 70 of its public sites.”
Latinos and other disadvantaged groups would benefit from these prohibitions. About 23.9% of Mexican American nonsmokers were exposed to secondhand smoke, according to the CDC.
All of this makes it a perfect time to quit smoking.
“Most smokers know their addiction is jeopardizing their chances of surviving this pandemic, but how many of them stop to consider that their habit is jeopardizing the lives of older individuals, children with asthma or our health care workers?” she asked in an editorial in the San Antonio Express-News. “As many as 10 percent to 20 percent of COVID-19 deaths are among health care workers, disproportionately blacks and Hispanics who assist in nursing homes and hospitals, and many of these workers live in multigenerational households where social distancing can be difficult.”
Those who hope to quit smoking can find helpful resources, such as the Quitxt program from the team behind Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio.
Quitxt is a bilingual service for your smartphone that sends messages with culturally and regionally tailored support to help South Texas young adults quit smoking.
Also, find out if you are TILT’ed.