Dealing with Third-Hand Smoke. . .
October 21, 2010 5:16 AM   Subscribe

We live in an old house that has been split into a few apartments. The guy below us smokes and there is a faint smell of smoke in our 16-month old's room. The baby's room is located above the neighbor's office, where he seems to do a lot of his smoking.

I assume that limited second-hand smoke exposure is still a health concern, so we are trying to address this. The short questions: (1) is this limited exposure really a concern; and (2) is this something that an air filter can fix?

We live in New Orleans and the problem seems to surface on days when the humidity drops out of the 70 percent-plus range. Last year around this time, we asked him to stop using incense because it was finding its way into our house. He graciously agreed. We can ask him to stop smoking in his office and I expect that he will comply. I don't like doing this, but it is his smoke that is making its way into our living space.

Is there anyway that we can mitigate this smoke infiltration with a smoke eater or air purifier? If so, do we ask him to put it in his living space, or do we put it in the baby's room? My research regarding air filters shows that they are pretty suspect unless you start talking about serious dollars. Landlord is not going to do anything to help, so any guidance/suggestions would be appreciated.
posted by ajr to Home & Garden (8 answers total)
The short questions: (1) is this limited exposure really a concern;

If it's a very low-level exposure -- a slight smell, not smoke pouring in through your vents -- there probably isn't much risk compared to all of the others risks to which you expose your child every day. (Holding your delicate thin-skulled child three feet above a hard floor, for example, exposes that child to serious risk of injury, but who doesn't pick up and hold their children?) You can try to reduce or eliminate the smoke/smell, but it might be smarter to put your time and energy towards mitigating other risks.

The American Cancer Society says:
What about smoking odors?

There is no research in the medical literature about the cancer-causing effects of cigarette odors. Research does show that secondhand tobacco smoke can get into hair, clothing, and other surfaces.

Some researchers call this "thirdhand" smoke. This refers to the toxic particles that are left in the air after you can no longer see the smoke. Over time, they settle on surfaces and can be measured long after the person is done smoking. Though unknown, the cancer-causing effects would likely be very small compared with direct exposure to secondhand smoke, such as living in a house with a smoker. But this is an active area of tobacco research.
and (2) is this something that an air filter can fix?

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says:
Can Air Filters Protect Me from Secondhand Smoke?

The only effective way to eliminate environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) -- also called "secondhand" smoke -- is to eliminate the source of smoke: get smokers in your family to quit smoking. Some air cleaners may help to reduce secondhand smoke to a limited degree, but no air filtration or air purification system can completely eliminate all the harmful constituents of secondhand smoke. [...]
posted by pracowity at 5:38 AM on October 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

One option at your end is to create positive air pressure within the baby's room, or in your entire apartment. Something that constantly pumps even just a little air into your space will constantly push air out of all the cracks and crevices and prevent entry of smoke or odors from any other space. Technically this is the simplest solution versus attempts to filter, "neutralize" or block the smoke/odors. It's how the fans in computers keep dust out of the chassis. It might take a little ingenuity to accomplish this, but ideas are: fit a small, quiet fan blowing air into a window, or reverse the flow in a kitchen or bathroom fan.
posted by beagle at 5:53 AM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

You mention this happens when the humidity is lower. Does this correspond to when the AC is off most of the time? Does your AC have a fan only setting that will keep the air in the vents going to his apartment? Beagle's suggestion is also a good one if the vents are not the main source of the smoke.
posted by Yorrick at 6:35 AM on October 21, 2010

how about moving the baby to another room?
posted by seawallrunner at 6:46 AM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seal the baby's room!

Is the smoke coming through cracks in a hardwood floor, shared vents, or the baseboards? (I'm guessing the baseboards, btw...) Seal points of entry with caulk. Really.

Nthing Beagle's suggestion, too.

Please don't ask this person to stop smoking in their own home. If you have continued problems, talk to the landlord about fixing the structure of his property so that smells/sounds don't travel between apartments. Putting the responsibility for this on the tenant below you is really really really the last remedy you should consider.
posted by jbenben at 7:54 AM on October 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

but it is his smoke that is making its way into our living space.

as an occasional smoker of various things, though I might comply with a request to NOT smoke in a particular part of my home, my resentment would be palpable. As such, it might inspire me to note every conceivable transgression coming from your quarters (ie: music too loud, TV too loud, BABY TOO LOUD, cooking with too much garlic, too much vacuuming, etc).

Seriously, as pracowity points out: There is no research in the medical literature about the cancer-causing effects of cigarette odors.

Is this cigarette smell truly befouling things, or are you maybe just paying too much attention to it? This is understandable having a baby and all, but living in and among other people is often a trial and inevitably requires collaboration and compromise.

Seal the baby's room!

Be careful here. There's a lot of research that suggests air tight spaces (too well insulated etc) can be quite unhealthy.
posted by philip-random at 11:22 AM on October 21, 2010

If my downstairs neighbours had a baby in the room above or below mine, I would feel totally fine with a request from them to stop smoking in my room, in the same way I would not feel totally pissy about a request to keep the noise level down or walk quietly or anything else. it's a BABY. And yes, I am a smoker. The same way neighbours should respect noise levels, they should respect air pollution. If he at least cuts down his smoking in that room, it will be beneficial to the baby. just don't go nuts every time you smell a little smoke, if he does cut down.
posted by custard heart at 12:35 PM on October 22, 2010

Don't know why I never made the connection between the increased infiltration and the reduced usage of the AC/heater. We can run the fan without the compressor and have done so for the last day with great effect.

All of the responses were helpful, but Yorrick nailed it. Thanks guys and gals!
posted by ajr at 8:35 PM on October 22, 2010

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