According to a press release from the University of California at Riverside, the school has received a $250,000 grant from the state-funded tobacco research program to study the effects of thirdhand smoke dust on the skin.
According to the press release: "Manuela Martins-Green, a professor of cell biology and neuroscience, for a project to study the adverse effects of third-hand smoke, which is the residue from tobacco smoke that adhere to nearly all surfaces (e.g. carpets, curtains, upholstery, car surfaces) long after a cigarette has been extinguished; the adhered products can then breakdown and/or change to become carcinogens. Martins-Green will study the effects of this kind of smoke exposure on skin biology and wound healing. The two-year $250,000 grant will support one graduate student and one postdoctoral scholar. “I am expecting to find that prolonged exposure to third-hand smoke will affect the ability of the skin to protect us from environmental exposures,” she said. “I also expect that, when injured, the skin will not heal normally and could even result in wounds that become chronic.”"
Funding for this research comes from the state of California's Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, whose revenue comes from the state excise cigarette tax.
The Rest of the Story
Dust with thirdhand smoke causing chronic wounds? Thirdhand smoke on the skin causing damage due to an inability of the skin to protect the body from environmental exposures? This is the kind of significant public health problem that a quarter million dollars of California taxpayers' money is going to?
How often is it that we've heard about otherwise healthy infants or young children who have chronic wounds that just won't heal? How often do we observe such a problem, even among children of smokers who smoke in the home?
This seems like a real stretch and hardly seems worth spending a quarter of a million dollars to study. It may even be the case that one could show impaired skin healing among rats with skin injuries who are exposed to thirdhand smoke, but what exactly is the clinically significant implication of such research?
The results are particularly unimportant because if parents are smoking in the home with infants, then the direct effects of secondhand smoke are of much more concern than any effects of thirdhand smoke. And identifying some minor additional effects of thirdhand smoke would have no significant implications for public health practice or policy. Parents (with infants) who smoke in the home need to be encouraged to quit or at least to smoke outside the home to protect their infants from secondhand smoke exposure. Any additional minor effects of thirdhand smoke are essentially inconsequential. Thus, this research - regardless of how it turns out - will not change anything.
One disturbing aspect of this story is that the researcher who received this funding stated that she has expectations for how the research will turn out. She is quoted as stating: "I am expecting to find that prolonged exposure to third-hand smoke will affect the ability of the skin to protect us from environmental exposures. I also expect that, when injured, the skin will not heal normally and could even result in wounds that become chronic."
It seems to me that researchers should be objective in studying research questions. They should not expect the results to come out one way or the other, but should keep an open mind and just let the data answer the question. Having expectations for the way the results will turn out actually impedes scientific objectivity because it creates a bias that can affect the objective interpretation of the data.
Interestingly, a request for applications for research on thirdhand smoke put out by the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program itself raises the issue of how objective the program is. The RFA "anticipates" the findings of the research in advance, arguing that the results will lead to policy enactment and that the research will demonstrate that thirdhand smoke contains "disease-causing toxicants." This is before the research has been conducted.
It seems to me that the research question that needs to be asked by the program is whether or not thirdhand smoke is sufficient to cause disease. The research program is anticipating the findings before the research even begins. Similar to the UC Riverside press release, the language of this RFA throws the objectivity of the program into question.
(Thanks to Michael McFadden for the tip.)