‘Ten cigarettes worth of nicotine’ from sitting in a cinema

An experiment using high-resolution mass spectrometry recorded toxic gases coming off the clothing of people watching a movie.

An experiment using high-resolution mass spectrometry recorded toxic gases coming off the clothing of people watching a movie. Photo: Getty

One day the coronavirus will be an unpleasant or even diabolical memory.

Life will go and we’ll all happily return to the cinemas and nightclubs and intellectual public lectures and so forth.

And those places will be secretly killing us anyway.

That’s the short version of a new study that found “indoor spaces like movie theatres could be covered in chemicals associated with cigarettes, even if no one smokes inside them”.

Using high-level mass spectrometry, the researchers found that movie-goers at “a well-ventilated German theatre” were exposed to between one and 10 cigarettes worth of nicotine, from third-hand smoke.

The investigators saw, in real time, a process called “off gassing” – the release of airborne chemicals – in this instance, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were seen coming off the bodies and clothes of people in the audience in “considerable concentrations”.

The new research gives smoking in the movies an uncool new meaning. Photo: Pulp Fiction

The researchers noted “especially high concentrations of toxic benzene and formaldehyde were detected at late-night or R-rated screenings.”

This doesn’t mean that smokers are more prone to dirty movies than the rest of us, but probably points more to smokers staying up later because nictone is a stimulant, and insomnia is a common smoker complaint.

The researchers said the third-hand exposure is likely to be far worse in areas that are smaller or less well-ventilated.

Common sense says that’s true.

But it should be noted that Germany has a higher rate of smoking than Australia.

A 2017 study notes that the prevalence of smoking in Germany is about 27 per cent of people over 15.

According to Cancer Australia, from 2001 to 2017-18, the proportion of adults smoking daily decreased from 22.4 per cent to 13.8 per cent – about half that of Germany.

Regardless, third-hand smoking remains an issue that requires some airing.

A 2011 study found that prenatal exposure to toxic components of third-hand smoke can have a serious effect on lung development in infants.

A 2013 study found that third-hand smoke causes significant genetic damage in human cells.

Furthermore, the study also found that chronic exposure is worse than acute exposure, with the chemical compounds in samples exposed to chronic third-hand smoke existing in higher concentrations and causing more DNA damage than samples exposed to acute third-hand smoke, suggesting that the residue becomes more harmful over time.

A 2017 experiment, using a mouse model, found that third-hand smoke exposure has a significant deleterious effect on the liver and brain, as early as one month after initiation of exposure – an effect that worsens with time.

A report from Cancer Council Victoria notes that nicotine has been found in smokers’ homes at levels 12 to 21 times those in non-smokers’ homes.

“Once present, it persists for months to years even if tobacco is no longer smoked,” the report noted.

“Nicotine can permeate all parts of the indoor environment and strongly absorb onto a variety of materials.”

Cleaning may not adequately remove nicotine and other third-hand smoke constituents and instead be re-suspended and re-deposited on cleaned surfaces.

How to get rid of third-hand smoke

According to the Mayo clinic, third-hand smoke can’t be eliminated by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air-conditioners, or confining smoking to only certain areas of a home.

The New Daily found plenty of advice about scrubbing all hard surfaces and laundering all fabrics.

The Mayo Clinic advises: “To remove the residue, hard surfaces, fabrics and upholstery need to be regularly cleaned or laundered. Third-hand smoke can’t be eliminated by airing out rooms, opening windows, using fans or air-conditioners, or confining smoking to only certain areas of a home.”

But the American Non-smokers’ Rights Foundation says there’s a lot more work involved:

  1. Thoroughly wash walls and ceilings with detergent and very hot water to remove as much nicotine and tar residue as possible. Wear gloves and use multiple clean rags to prevent simply pushing the residue around. Wash, rinse, repeat
  2. Repaint walls with two or three coats of paint. If walls are not thoroughly washed before repainting, nicotine can seep through multiple layers of paint
  3. Remove carpeting and padding, and wash floors before replacing carpeting
  4. Replace curtains/blinds/window coverings to prevent off-gassing into the environment
  5. Clean ventilation ducts and replace filters. Heating and air-conditioning systems recirculate stale smoke in the unit and throughout the building.

Despite all this effort, the foundation advises: “While these steps do not and cannot remove all of the potential problems associated with a formerly smoke-filled apartment, it can reduce the third-hand smoke residue and mitigate some of the off-gassing of tobacco toxins into the environment.”

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