Why Smoking at Home is Worse Than You Than Think

  • 01 of 05

    Thirdhand Smoke is a Thing

    Cigarette Butts
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    Real talk: Did you know smoking and vaping leaves behind a toxic residue that does pretty icky things to your stuff and health? The funk is called thirdhand smoke and when it comes to your home, it is definitely not safe for life.

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  • 02 of 05

    Thirdhand Smoke Sticks Around

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    Your furniture can absorb thirdhand smoke. Decor8Holly / Flickr

    In a nutshell, third-hand smoke is the harmful residue secondhand smoke leaves behind. The stuff is a super sticky mix of chemicals, carcinogens and nicotine that clings to hard surface and seeps into porous materials like upholstered furniture, carpet, wood flooring, and even wallboard.

    “The latter itself is a very good reservoir for a lot of the compounds from secondhand smoke,” says Lara Gundel, a Berkeley Lab scientist and one of the leading investigators in a study funded by the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP) about the environmental impacts of thirdhand smoke. “Once these pollutants are sucked in by the wallboard, they can continue to outcast thirdhand smoke, which pollutes indoor air for a long time.”

    What makes thirdhand smoke, even more, insidious? “It can become even more dangerous to your health when it reacts with common indoor pollutants like cooking gas," says Gundel. While researchers are still examining the nasty brew's potential dangers, it is confirmed it causes DNA damage, which is the first step towards cancer. 

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  • 03 of 05

    How to Detect Thirdhand Smoke in Your Home

    Smoking at home is bad
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    Thirdhand smoke from cigarettes and other forms of tobacco is usually easy to detect. You know that bad smell that lingers long after the smoke clears? Whether it is a faint odor or pee-yew stink, “That is thirdhand smoke,” says Gundel. 

    Air fresheners can mask the smell of thirdhand smoke.  “If that is the case, open up an air return and sniff," says Ryan Simon, an agent with Sun State Realty located in Phoenix, AZ.  “Any odors that are in the home will be much more pronounced in the air return, where the AC pulls the air in.”

    A few more ways you can detect thirdhand smoke from tobacco products:

    • Look for nicotine stains. Yep, just like the ones you may have seen on a heavy smoker’s teeth or skin. They will appear on walls and ceilings and will range in color from pale yellow to dark brown.
    • Perform a nicotine test. You can get a DIY kit EMSL. Many home inspectors use the same test. The lab fee costs $95. However, the test kits are free, so you can keep one on hand just in case.

    Unfortunately, thirdhand smoke from electronic cigarettes is hard to detect. You know that vapor cloud smokers exhale? It includes propylene glycol and glycerin. Although both are approved for food products, they are not approved for inhaling. Also, harmful chemicals like nicotine are frequently added to vaping products. When these compounds evaporate, they can stick to walls and off-gas. However, unlike thirdhand smoke from tobacco products, the residue vaping leaves behind may not have a telltale odor.

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  • 04 of 05

    How to Snuff Out the Problem

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    “The conventional wisdom is, well, repaint, pull up the carpets, tear down curtains, do what you have to do to get rid of smelly thirdhand smoke,” says Simon.

    However, doing all of the above, may not be enough. For example, while a few coats of fresh paint may temporarily seal up tobacco smells and stains, the contamination can percolate through it and eventually the obnoxious smoke odors are back. 

    So what can you do after you remove personal property tainted by thirdhand smoke like upholstered furniture and carpet? At the very least:

    FYI, experts agree the above is a temporary fix. At best, it will give you a short break from off-gassing, and it may also mitigate some of the contamination. So that you know, the  best way to eliminated thirdhand smoke in a house is to remove all porous surfaces including permanent features like wallboard.

    And what about ozone treatments? “Well, there are two issues that are important to consider. One is, the ozone will not get into the depth of the wallboard,” says Gundel. The second, nicotine is reactive with ozone.  When combined, they create ultra fine particles that when inhaled can cause a broad range of respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

    One more good to know. If you have young children, they are particularly vulnerable to thirdhand smoke. Not only can they inhale, but they can also ingest it by putting their fingers in their mouths after touching contaminated surfaces.

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  • 05 of 05

    Thirdhand Smoke Can Make it Hard to Quit

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    If you are having trouble kicking the cigarette habit, thirdhand smoke may be the problem.

    “Nicotine can attach to porous materials, and it will try to be an equilibrium with the ambient air. If there has been a lot of smoking consistently, then the walls will keep taking up as much as they can," says Grundel.  “When you stop smoking at home, you upset this balance, so to counteract the change, the thirdhand smoke comes out.”

    For smokers who quit but have a lot of surface nicotine in their homes, this can be a huge problem. The latent nicotine exposure, according to Gundel, may load the ex-smoker's nicotine receptors, so they are always stimulated, which makes it much harder to beat the addiction.

    What else should you know about thirdhand smoke? The jury is still out. While experts agree it is harmful, they are still examining to what extent. Currently, the TRDRP is funding eight research groups to study thirdhand smoke. Results from these studies, which will hopefully include surefire tips for home remediation, should be publicly available by 2019.