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Secondhand Smoke Residue on Clothing…and Your Newborn

Mar29

by

Amy,

I am desperate for advice on how to handle my in-laws who smoke like chimneys! We are expecting our fist child in April and I will absolutely lose my shit if my daughter is exposed to smoke when they come to visit. I have asthma and both my husband and I have allergies so we are concerned that she will be predisposed to problems anyway without the compounding factor of being exposed to smoke. Now my in-laws do have respect for my asthma and do not smoke around me. So I know they will not mind going outside to smoke when they come to visit. The problem comes from them constantly reeking of smoke, which means anything they touch smells like smoke. I hate it! It irritates my asthma so I am very concerned that it will affect my daughter too. My solution, besides refusing to let them see her until they quit their disgusting habit, is to ask them to wash their hands and change their shirt before they touch or hold her. My husband is worried that it will upset them. My reply is who gives a shit because we are talking about our daughter’s health. So I guess my question is am I being unreasonable? How else can I handle this situation and still protect my daughter’s health?

Any advice or help is greatly appreciated!

Thanks,
Ashley

UPDATE: Our readers chime in with resources about research on the dangers of third-hand smoke in the comments section. MUST-READ. Thank you dear readers.

Okay. So. Secondhand smoke vs. smoke residue on clothing are two different things, although hell yes, they both stink to high heaven and I personally cannot stand either. But smoke residue on clothing and skin DOES NOT enter and irritate and damage the lungs like actual, airborne smoke. So by that standard, you can dial back on your all-consuming, white-knuckled fear for your baby’s health. Nobody is getting lung cancer from a stinky t-shirt.

HOWEVER.

Smoke residue CAN and DOES irritate the nasal passages and eyes. You know this feeling well. You smell that *smell* and your eyes water and your nose wrinkles up and it’s a smell so strong and so bad you swear you can *taste* it. This irritation is just that — irritating — in small doses and exposure periods, but after awhile your other (usually unrelated) respiratory allergies start acting up and after a longer while this constant state of irritation will make you more prone to infections of various kinds. Not cool.

So in the grand scheme of things, I’d say your worries over your in-laws visiting are valid, though not valid enough to, say, forbid them to visit or make them stay in a hotel or constantly and dramatically gag and cough every time they walk into the room. But they are enough to request that yes, they wash their hands before holding her. (Although really, EVERYBODY should wash their hands before holding your newborn. Smokers certainly don’t hold a monopoly on germs.)

As for the changing of clothing — instead of insisting on actually changing shirts, insist on a “smoking jacket.” If they are going outside to smoke at your house, they’ll probably have one already. But if, say, they visit in the summer, have your husband ask that they still bring a light windbreaker or other cover-up to wear for smoking that they can remove before coming in the house. This should (according to Dr. Sears and a few other websites I consulted about secondhand smoke facts) be enough to shield your daughter from any nasal or eye irritation from fresh smoke clinging to their clothes.

You’re probably still going to smell it, even if they do change their shirts after every cigarette, because they DO smoke like chimneys and you ARE highly sensitive to it and there’s a limit to what laundry detergent can do over time. But it’s old stale smoke that is unlikely to cause your daughter any serious harm.

THAT SAID! If you notice that her eyes are red and watery after they hold her or she develops a dry cough or nosebleeds or anything like that, then it will be time for you and your husband (and your pediatrician! always get the doctor on your side!) to have a more serious talk about his parents and their habit.

In the meantime, keep the cigarettes outside and a smoking jacket handy (make it velvet! Hugh Hefner style!), and for now, take a deep clean breath inside your nice, smoke-free home and relax. It’s going to be okay.

UPDATE: Our readers chime in with resources about research on the dangers of third-hand smoke in the comments section. MUST-READ. Thank you dear readers.

Don’t forget to visit Amalah’s must-read weekly Pregnancy Calendar.

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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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23 Responses to “Secondhand Smoke Residue on Clothing…and Your Newborn”

  1. jodifur Mar 30 at 7:10 am Reply Reply

    I say let your husband run interference if it has to be done. I have gotten involved before and they always blame everything on me. It is his parents, make him be the bad guy.

    • Joe Jun 09 at 5:09 am Reply Reply

      Ugh… I know the feeling. I live in the downstairs and whenever my dad so much as moves around upstairs I get a scratchy throat, start cracking my knuckles and itchy eyes. Which was the exact way I always felt when I smoked. 

      I think it’s just extra worse with him in particular. Because he has terrible hygiene rarely washes his hair, changes his clothes, or takes showers. (they say smokers have low hygiene) 

      Anyways I have encouraged him to quit but his excuse is the same I’ve smoked for 40 years…. blah blah blah. 

  2. Cagey Mar 30 at 8:30 am Reply Reply

    My daughter wanted to have nothing to do with my mom for the 8 months or so of her life. NOTHING. It was so bad and so immediate, my daughter’s reaction to my mom, that it was awkward. I am fairly certain it was the smoke smells coming from her clothes. And yes, my mom was always conscientious about washing her hands. Since babies have such a sensitive sense of smell, the reader’s new baby may take care of the issue itself.

  3. Diane Mar 30 at 8:34 am Reply Reply

    I agree with Jodi. As far as holding the baby goes, our policy is that EVERYONE washes hands first, regardless of smoking behavior. Instead of the smoking jacket route, we insist on a receiving blanket draped over the shoulder/chest/etc. It has the added bonus of protecting their clothes from spit-up and other such baby drippings.

  4. cagey Mar 30 at 9:04 am Reply Reply

    While taking my shower this morning, I actually had a few non-kid moments to think about this further:
    I think the husband should be the one to take care of it – otherwise, the wife will be cast in the role of Evil DIL, which is not fair to her. Also, the couple would do well to just blame the whole asthma situation – meaning, the new baby has a higher risk for asthma anyway and therefore, should not be exposed to smoke or residue.

  5. Shanna Mar 30 at 9:05 am Reply Reply

    i’ve just watched an episode of The Doctors where they’re warning people about the risk of “third-hand smoke” (i.e. the residue leftover from the smoke contains harmful chemicals). here’s the link to The Doctors site for this episode: http://www.thedoctorstv.com/main/show_page/151
    basically the residue found anywhere from people’s clothing, furniture in hotel rooms, rental cars…anything coming into contact with smoke contains harmful chemicals that can, overtime, become dangerous if exposed long enough. you might want to do some more research on it.
    what you should remember is that this is your child and you and your husband have the say at what comes in contact with her. i agree with what the previous commenter said about providing a receiving blanket and of course hand washing. what some might not think about is their breath; if they’ve just smoked and want to hold the baby i’d politely say no or make up some excuse like “she’s irritable right now” or whatever. my husband only smokes outside but if he wants to play with our son he washes his hands and brushes his teeth.

  6. Andrea Mar 30 at 9:33 am Reply Reply

    What Shanna said. Third-hand smoke is coming to be understood as a serious health risk in its own right. (This is completely intuitive to anybody who ever had an asthma attack triggered by the smoke-reeking person who sat next to them on a train.)
    Babies are at particular risk.
    See:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/03/health/research/03smoke.html?em
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081229105037.htm
    Google “third-hand smoke” for more info.

  7. Rebecca Mar 30 at 10:47 am Reply Reply

    I spent years joking that if I were to ever procreate, my parents would have to quit smoking in order to meet their grandchild. When I got pregnant, I took the opportunity to follow through on that ultimatum. It’s been four months since my son was born and my mom is still smoke-free (my dad has gone from a pack-a-day smoker to a pack-a-week smoker and now only outside). It was a little bitchy of me, but totally worth it to have (mostly) smoke-free parents for the first time in my life. My brother is expecting his first kid this summer, and is on board with the policy (which will hopefully help avoid relapses).

  8. Beth Mar 30 at 11:00 am Reply Reply

    I obviously realize that it’s a habit, hard to quit, blah blah blah…
    But my gut instinct whenever I encounter a smoker is always “Seriously? You smoke? Who still smokes?? Ewww.”
    Because, seriously? Who still smokes?!

  9. Brooke Mar 30 at 11:26 am Reply Reply

    Ok, this is a touchy one for me because I went through a VERY similar situation. My in-laws smoked around me while I was pregnant without thought (in their homes, of course, not mine), and I was concerned because they were okay with just “going into another room” to smoke when he was a newborn. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t speak up. And I should have.
    Now, he’s three and has allergy-induced asthma and we deal with smoke and other environmental issues CONSTANTLY. And my daughter (4 1/2 months) is following right along in his footsteps. I can’t, and don’t, blame them of course – he was predisposed, my husband has asthma and I had it as a child – but I am sure that being around smoke so often so young (and in utero) may have made it worse than it would’ve been otherwise.
    My in-laws have since quit smoking (my husband spoke to them – but they ultimately quit because my father-in-law now has lung cancer), but my mother also smokes. I had to speak with her when my son was young because she refused to go outside when we were at her house. An ultimatum was given in her case, and she politely excuses herself to her garage now when she smokes. It is still a bit of an issue, though, because her furniture/house smell like smoke as soon as you walk in the door… and because of that we spend a lot less time at her house than we would otherwise.
    hi, tangent. My point is – speak up. If your child does end up with allergies or asthma that are smoke-induced, you will at least then feel like you’ve done everything that you couuld. Asthma and allergies can make you feel powerless as a parent – you owe it to yourself and your child to take any steps you can to prevent either.

  10. Melanie Mar 30 at 11:50 am Reply Reply

    I like what Rebecca did. I don’t have kids yet, but I am the youngest of 4 and my brothers are over 10 years older than me. I have 7 (soon to be 8) nieces and nephews and my parents both quit smoking before #1 was born. That was about 9 years ago and they are both still smoke-free except for an occasional cigar while my dad’s playing cards.

  11. Amy Mar 30 at 10:23 pm Reply Reply

    Sorry, but media hype notwithstanding, the studies attempting to prove the existence of or harms from third-hand smoke are spurious at best.
    http://tobaccoanalysis.blogspot.com/2009/01/new-study-warns-of-dangers-of-thirdhand.html
    http://tobaccoanalysis.blogspot.com/2009/01/original-study-on-thirdhand-smoke-does.html
    http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2009/01/third-hand-smoke-and-chemtrails.html
    It may be gross and smelly, but there is no evidence that it affects children’s (or anyone else’s health).

  12. class factotum Mar 31 at 1:00 pm Reply Reply

    I don’t have kids and I don’t have an opinion on asthma and smoking-induced diseases, but my husband is an occasional smoker (as in two packs a month, tops). He is always amazed when I ask, “Did you smoke yesterday?” I can smell it in his breath the day after he smokes one cigarette.
    It is starting to worry him a little bit. I am not concerned about his health, though. I think it just affects different people differently. My grandmother died at 96 after a lifetime of heavy smoking. Her house never smelled and she had no smoking-related health conditions. His parents, however, are heavy ex-smokers who are now feeling the pain. They are mean, nasty people who told him not to marry me two weeks before our wedding and I’ll just leave it at that.

  13. Ashley Apr 01 at 2:30 pm Reply Reply

    Thanks y’all for the advice on how to handle the inlaws! We are close (Please God let it be soon, today works for me!) to our daughter’s birth so this is perfect timing. My husband has talked to his parents about our expectations and unfortunately it has ticked them off. It probably didn’t help that he strongly suggested they quit as their first choice! His choice to push that issue not mine but that’s not to say I don’t agree. They probably won’t ever quit even though they both have health problems from smoking for so long. He thinks their feelings are hurt because his brother has never pushed the issue about them smoking around our nephews. Anyway they have informed us that they aren’t sure when they are even coming to visit after our daughter is born (We are in MO since my husband is in school to be a chiropractor and they are back home in TN.) So they are throwing a little bit of a fit over this but in the end I guess it’s their loss. On the upside the longer she has to build up her immune system before meeting them the better. After reading Amy’s advice, my husband decided he is going to snag a few clinic jackets from school to have on hand for when they come. Not velvet but kinda unique!

  14. jasmineN Apr 02 at 11:43 am Reply Reply

    Ok, I read the original study (G E Matt 2004) and I agree with many of the flaws brought up by the linked blogger. AND no single study should be taken as absolute truth. However, I wouldn’t be so quick to decide that there is 0 evidence of health risk from third hand smoke. The confidence intervals were reasonably narrow for such a small sample size and there were marked differences between the “no exposure” group and the other groups. Are they clinically different? I don’t know the biology of that scenario so I can’t make that judgment. The confidence intervals for the biological markers in the indirect/direct exposure groups did overlap at times and I agree with the blogger that parents will under-report smoking so the differences between the indirectly/directly exposed groups should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. My conclusion from the study? There is some evidence that infants exposed indirectly or directly to cigarette smoke can have higher levels of tobacco related chemicals in their hair and urine. Further study is necessary to validate these findings (remediating some of the flaws in this study design) and to determine clinical significance of these findings.
    The Winickoff paper that many of the media reports referred to contains NO NEW evidence about the health risks of thirdhand tobacco exposure. It was merely a poll about the relationship between a belief in thirdhand smoking risks and the willingness to impose a smoking ban. The media (as usual in science reporting) grossly oversimplified things.
    The take home message? There may be some risk. We aren’t sure. If you want to put energy into systematically preventing exposure to your infant, that MIGHT be a good thing.

  15. jane Apr 03 at 12:09 am Reply Reply

    You would have to smoke A LOT and never wash your clothes and then stick your smokey clothes and you in a hot room all the while breathing DEEPLY in order to be affected by the bad things in third-hand cigarette smoke. Toluene is bad but in what quantity? Arsenic isn’t a volatile so I’m not sure how you’d inhale it. It’s true that these chemcials are harmful to health in certain concentrations. Honestly, you’re probably getting a bigger dose of air polution living in LA or near a busy expressway.

  16. Rae Apr 03 at 5:01 pm Reply Reply

    Wow…Call me old-fashioned, but when is it okay to blackmail your parents? If they died tomorrow, I would seriously hope that people would have more regrets than being cut out of the will for manipulating them. Because that’s what blackmail is…manipulation. People don’t tend to react very well to that.
    It seems the young mom-to-be is very excited over the fact that she now gets to ban her in-laws from her baby’s life. Gloating, in fact. I see that they make an effort to go outside to smoke, even in their own home (which, believe me, I’ve never known a smoker that generous. Sure there’s plenty, just not in my family!).
    I saw nothing in this post that says your in-laws were aware the smell bothered you. They might not even realize it.
    Disgusting habit? Oh, yes. And you have the right to protect your baby, even if you insist on sticking the kid in a bubble. It’s your kid. You can do that with some diplomacy, though, not immature manipulation tactics.
    BTW, I’m expecting my first. My mom smokes 50 cigs a day. I said I didn’t want the smoke or smell around the baby, but I wanted my mother to be a big (huge! Yay Grandma!) of our lives. I said I’d never keep the baby away from her, but that I only wanted respect for my decisions.
    BTW she quit. After 30 years. 2 and a half packs a day. She decided she wanted more time to spoil them, and to be around to see what they’ll pull on me when she becomes a great-grandma.

  17. jen Apr 08 at 6:36 pm Reply Reply

    Damn, Rebecca and Rae, that is awesome!
    Smoking is disgusting and sickening–literally. You have done your families–generations before and after you–a HUGE favor! I hope your smoking relatives are beginning to feel better without their morning coughing fits and are glad you and the little ones spurred them on to make the change.

  18. baby bows Apr 20 at 4:47 am Reply Reply

    My current boyfriend is a smoker. I hate it when I smell it. He doesn’t doesn’t smoke near me and he doesn’t let his friends smoke near me, too. I sooo appreciate it but I wonder sometimes, what if we have a baby already? I’m afraid she’ll get asthma because of that. but thanks for your advice, I know what to do now. =)

  19. Karen Apr 26 at 2:35 pm Reply Reply

    I found this blog because I am having this very issue with my parents. When I decided to go back to college, my parents offered for my husband, my children and me to stay with them. I refused, and told them it was because of the smoking. They swore they would quit, and we moved in. I have two years to graduation, and they have begun smoking again. I asked they not smoke around our children, and stay away a bit for the smoke on the clothes and skin to wear off. My daughter and son are both on daily breathing treatments (ironically just since they began smoking again) and I do not want to risk a full blown asthma attack with either of them. My daughter has also just had major surgery for a birth defect and spent the last two weeks in the hospital, with pneumonia as a complication. Yesterday I told my father he could not take my son from the van because he had a cigarette in his mouth, and he hasn’t spoke to me since. Worse, he has made some rather hateful comments to our son, about how he (my Dad) isn’t good enough to do things with him (my son) anymore. My son adores his grandfather, and I don’t want him to be hurt because my father is angry with me and can’t seem to see past his addiction to what I view as a health risk to my children. I don’t know how to handle him, and because of how we have worked our finances to minimize student loans it would appear we cannot afford to move. I would have to take out approximately $20,000 more in loans to leave…but it may come to that for our children’s sake.
    I don’t see it as minipulation to make what you believe to be the best choices for your children. No, you cannot put them in bubbles, but you don’t let them play on the freeway either! Having grown up vomiting in the backseat from their smoke, I just don’t want it around my kids!

  20. NBC May 23 at 8:55 pm Reply Reply

    I enjoyed reading all the comments. For the person that said your boyfriend doesnt smoke near you is only for now and it will all change once you guys are together for a while and married and stuff. You have got a lot thinking to do. I was the same with my current smoker husband. He never smoked near me and he has always told me he will quit and to this day we have been together for four years and we have a 6 months old baby and he did not quit. He has told me million times he will. He even said right before our baby was going to be born that he will quit 100% but now it keeps being extended. She has a very bad eczema and she is stuff most of the time and I was just told from her doctor that he would have to change his shirt after he smokes so the residue doesnt get to her. I never thought about that before. My father in law also smokes and I mentioned it to them that the doctor said that and they laughed and made fun of me and said oh Your husband would have to change his shirt about 20 times a day then. What kind of world are we in?????? For mothers not to be able to tell what she actually wants for her own baby?!!! I am in tough situation because I can control my husband but not them:(

  21. BLewis Jun 08 at 11:41 am Reply Reply

    This is a tough issue, I only have one additional thing to add – Chantix. It is a new(er) prescription drug that makes a real difference in quitting and costs no more than what the typical cost of cigarets per month (though it is all up front). If your family members are serious about quitting have them talk to their doctors about Chantix or some other smoking abatement program – they dont just have to cold turkey it anymore!

  22. Miranda Dec 01 at 3:32 am Reply Reply

    I just found this blog because I’m going through this very thing. My FIL came to visit us for thanksgiving which is a huge deal since he barely calls and the last time he came to visit was 7.5 years ago for our wedding. In that time he had quit smoking but failed to tell us that he started again 2 years ago. When he arrived, my two young boys and my husband and I were all trying to get over a really bad chest cold. And here he is prancing in reeking of smoke. My house is tiny and it’s winter so the heater is on and makes any smell stronger. Anyway I grew up with a smoking grandpa who was the cause of me getting asthma as a young child and dealing with the consequences of that all my life. With that being said, I’m VERY sensitive to smoke. I can smell it on people and things even after a while since the area was smoked in. It irritates me, makes me wheeze and makes me sick. I cannot stand the disgusting smell of smoke especially when it’s been ingrained in clothing, furniture, skin etc. And when I’m sick if I see some one smoking I have to cover my face to pass by because it will escalate whatever I have to a new level. I’ll immediately get a sore throat and just feel like crap in general. The only time I can put up with smoke is if I’m 100% healthy and not coming down or fighting something. Anyway, he comes while we all have this cold without telling us that he smokes again. And I’m talking chain smoking like crazy. This man gets up about 7 times a night to go smoke. So obviously the smoke is coming in my house, he reeks. He arrived on Thursday for thanksgiving and did not shower until Saturday, wore the same clothes the previous two days. He smelled like the Goodwill, no joke. Anyway I asked my husband to tell him that i would wash his clothes, that he needs to air himself out before coming in because by Thursday night my throat felt like I had a sea urchin living in it and I was wheezing. My kids coughs had gotten considerably worse as well and my house stunk like the shoe section of the goodwill. It was nasty. My husband told him he needed to smoke at the end of the driveway and not so close to the house, and that he needed to air himself out for a while before coming back in but he goes to the end of the driveway like 15 times a day and smokes two cigs one after the other every time. It’s just too much smoke to make a difference on how it affects me and the inside of my house, especially when he sits all over my couch and pillows. I really want my kids to know their grandpa. My paternal grandpa and I didn’t have a relationship and I would love for things to be different for them. For obvious reasons there’s no way we would go to his house now but his smoking really gets to me and I’m at the point where I’m taking it personally because he can see we are getting gradually worse with sickness but continues to do it. I know it’s not personal but I don’t know what to do. My hubs already agreed that next time he comes, he’s staying in a hotel (we have not slept for 3 nights from his constant night wakings for smoking breaks and the colds and coughs getting worse) but I feel that since I’m so sensitive to the smoke, I’m always going to be repelled by him. I’ve spent all weekend avoiding him because I can feel my sinuses getting irritated when I smell him so I just instinctively try to distance myself, but it’s awkward. And it’s stupid that I have to ride in the back seat of the car with the windows open in 37 degree weather because he’s reeking right in front of me in a small enclosed space. However I want him in our lives and want my husband to have a stronger relationship with him but the smoke is like this huge wall. My hubs is also VERY irritated with him because he didn’t tell us him that he started smoking again. Basically because he has a lot of health problems from it and he was doing so much better when he had quit. And also because my husband is suffering with a crazy cold that escalated because of it.
    It feels like if we suggested visits in public smoke free areas it wouldn’t be worth the effort of coming to see us. (We live in different states) I can tell after this weekend though that he prob doesn’t like me anymore because he left without saying goodbye to me, and said about 7 things to me all weekend. Whatever, he’s still my FIL and my kids grandfather. I just need ideas on how to overcome how the third hand smoke affects me and affects my kids.

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