SAN DIEGO, Calif. (StudyFinds.org) – Young children are often getting their hands into everything. Unfortunately, a new study finds one of those things is tobacco. Along with all the other germs that may be floating around, researchers say nearly all kids are collecting traces of tobacco on their hands as well.

Scientists from San Diego State University and the University of Cincinnati swabbed the hands of 504 children under the age of 11. Surprisingly, 97 percent showed “some level of nicotine present on their hands.” Moreover, 95 percent of the children living in a non-smoking home still displayed the presence of tobacco on their hands. This suggests the issue is a near-universal problem for moms and dads — not just an issue for smoking parents.

Thirdhand smoke is a hidden danger

Many people are familiar with secondhand smoke, but did you know there is also thirdhand smoke? This refers to the lingering chemical residue left behind by tobacco smoke in dust and on surfaces. Researchers say thirdhand smoke is likely lingering within any and all rooms that have housed a smoker or vaper.

There’s already been a recent push to educate parents on the dangers of thirdhand smoke and the importance of making sure their children avoid areas that contain tobacco smoke. This latest work, however, suggests the problem is even more serious and widespread than previously thought.

“This study filled an important gap. We have done a lot of research about thirdhand smoke in private homes, cars, hotels, and casinos, but we haven’t had access to clinical populations,” says Georg Matt, a psychology professor at SDSU and director of the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center, in a media release.

On a more positive note, study authors report efforts to reduce tobacco exposure among children within vulnerable populations are proving effective. In other words, it may not solve the problem completely, but if a parent has a smoking habit, they should try their hardest to never smoke in the car they use with their kids or within their homes at all.

“One result of this research should be to include thirdhand smoke as part of parental smoking cessation education programs,” comments lead study data collector Melinda Mahabee-Gittens, a pediatric emergency physician and clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Which children are at the highest risk for nicotine exposure?

Nicotine levels found on kids’ hands also varied according to income and race. Children from lower-income families generally showed higher amounts of nicotine on their hands. Additionally, children in African American families also displayed higher amounts of nicotine on their skin.

“Low-income children and children of Black parents have the most of this involuntary exposure; this is a wake-up call to protect vulnerable children and is an overlooked part of housing disparities,” adds study co-author Penelope Quintana, a public health professor at SDSU.

“With COVID, everybody is spending more time indoors and more time at home. If you live in an environment where people smoke or used to smoke, you’re going to be more exposed to thirdhand smoke than you were before,” Prof. Matt adds. “This study further highlights the importance of the quality of indoor environments.”

The research team aims to continue analyzing thirdhand smoke, and hope that one day their work helps cultivate more awareness of the problem. For example, perhaps in the future, real estate agents and landlords will be required to disclose thirdhand smoke levels in homes to potential buyers and tenants.

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.