The Greenup County Health Department is telling the public that tobacco smoke residue left on smokers' clothing is "extremely dangerous" and that it can cause both skin and nerve damage.
According to the Greenup County Health Department: "Results from a new study in Germany revealed that tobacco smoke residue – also known as “thirdhand smoke” - left on clothes, hair and skin after smoking is extremely dangerous, capable of causing skin and nerve damage – especially in children."
The national anti-smoking group Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) is also disseminating this alarmist claim about tobacco smoke residue on clothing, quoting from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) in writing: "Parents who do not smoke in the presence of their children, including even those who smoke only outdoors, nevertheless put their children at serious risk of "massive damage" to both skin and nerve cells, since a neurotoxin in thirdhand tobacco smoke penetrates the child's skin, according to recent research in Germany."
These hysterical claims about the extreme dangers of smokers' clothing - which allegedly causes nerve damage in children - stem from an episode of "science by press release," in which researchers issued a press release making these alarmist claims without actually releasing the study so that the methods and actual results and their significance could be scrutinized.
This episode of science by press release, which was first discovered by Michael McFadden, quickly led to a press release by ASH in which it claimed that thirdhand smoke on smokers' clothing could cause "massive damage" to the nerves and skin of children.
The Greenup County Health Department, which is located in the northeast corner of Kentucky, has turned off commenting on its article so that no one can point out the fact that the claims the Department is making are completely unsupported by scientific evidence.
The Rest of the Story
What ASH, ANR, and the Greenup County Health Department are not telling the public is that the study from Germany only examined the effect of tobacco smoke residues on clothing in a cell culture model. In other words, no actual humans were tested and there was no demonstration that in actual life there is any clinically significant effect of residue from smokers' clothing on the skin or nerves of children.
I challenge ASH, ANR, and the Greenup County Health Department to identify one case of "massive damage" to the skin or nerves of a child attributable to his or her contact with the clothing of a smoker.
In my medical training, I treated many children with massive skin damage and nervous system damage, but not a single case was attributable to their having touched a smoker's clothing. I also treated many children who had touched a smoker's clothing, but none of them had massive skin and nerve damage.
While the study examines the effect of residues in a skin cell culture model, it does not demonstrate actual skin damage "in real life." Moreover, the neurotoxicity is only a theoretical concern: the study provides no evidence that actual neurological damage occurs as a result of having contact with the clothes of a smoker.
Unfortunately, this didn't stop ASH, ANR, or the Greenup County Health Department from spreading unsupported conclusions widely through the media.
The rest of the story is that groups like ASH and ANR have no interest in actual scientific accuracy or scientific rigor. They are merely interested in disseminating tabloid news that will support their pre-ordained policy agenda. While I agree with many aspects of that agenda (especially the prohibition of smoking in the workplace, including bars, restaurants, and casinos), I do not support the use of shoddy scientific evidence to support these policies.
I think we need to be beyond reproach in our scientific rigor; otherwise, we risk losing credibility with the public. If we are telling the public that merely by touching a smoker's clothing, a child may suffer extremely dangerous nervous system injury, then clearly we don't have any credibility. So then, what is the chance that the public will believe us when we actually tell the truth? It's like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Once we lose public trust, we will lose credibility even when we are making statements that are well-supported by scientific evidence.
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