Premature Babies in NICUs at Risk from Tobacco Toxins Brought in on the Clothes and Skin


A new study warns that premature babies in intensive care are being exposed to harmful toxins from tobacco brought in on the clothes and skin of smokers. In spite of being in clean and sterile rooms, vulnerable newborns in incubators are still being exposed to thirdhand smoke residue linked to heart and lung diseases. These toxins are easily transported and deposited indoors lingering for up to 18 months where they form new toxicants and carcinogens before they degrade.

Babies are protected from second hand smoke but levels of third hand smoke have not be explored in hospitals before.

Assistant Professor Dr. Thomas Northrup at the Department of Family and Community Medicine of The University of Texas said, “Tobacco has regained the status of the world’s number two killer behind heart/vascular disease. Thirdhand smoke residue and particles from secondhand smoke are suspected health hazards, for example DNA damage, that are likely to contribute to morbidity and mortality, especially in vulnerable children.”

Thirdhand smoke is easily transported and deposited indoors, where it persists and exposes individuals for months, creating potential health consequences in seemingly nicotine-free environments, particularly for vulnerable patients. The findings demonstrate that exposure is taking place in at least one NICU, and raise the possibility that such exposure contributes to premature mortality in vulnerable infants.

“This research highlights thirdhand smoke’s pervasiveness, even in closely guarded healthcare settings,” said Dr. Northrup. “Future work is needed to understand exposures and health consequences in such a vulnerable population. Indeed, the death rate among NICU infants is relatively high and the role of environmental carcinogens is unknown.”

Dr. Northrup continued, “It may be important to implement hospital policies and interventions to reduce thirdhand smoke exposure, even ahead of collection of causal data, given the potential risks for NICU patients. Extending smoke-free policy definitions to include thirdhand smoke could have the added benefit to hasten the elimination of second hand smoke in other environments.”

The study took samples from the fingers of five mothers who smoked less than ten cigarettes a day and visited the NICU daily. Swabs were also taken from furniture and fittings and the urine of the infants were tested for traces of the chemical by-products of nicotine. The analysis showed that nicotine was detectable on the surfaces of the incubators, cribs, and other furniture tested.

The quantities found on the incubator and crib surfaces were lower than those on the unit furniture, which were at levels comparable with residue detected in the homes of smokers where indoor smoking is banned.

This discrepancy might be because of the tougher cleaning regimes for hospital cribs and incubators.

Detectable levels of several nicotine metabolites were also found in the infants’ urine samples, with the highest levels in one baby, who was still being breastfed, bt this may be because of exposure in the womb.

The study was published in the journal Tobacco Control.