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What Can I Do to Protect Myself from Secondhand Cigarette Smoke?

Secondhand smoke, or environmental tobacco smoke, is a health hazard for smokers and nonsmokers. A quick Google search of the term shows that the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control, the American Lung Association, the Mayo Clinic, the World Health Organization, and all other credible medical associations and professionals recognize the hazards of secondhand smoke exposure. Claims to the contrary are completely misguided at best. Lung cancer is not the only health effect of secondhand smoke – it’s not even the only fatal one.

Now, back to reality. There are a number of strategies that you can use to reduce the effect of secondhand smoke exposure. Note that I say “reduce.” Smoke generally goes where air goes, and in a building you share a lot of your air with other people. Air (and smoke) can move through gaps in the walls, light fixtures, ventilation, baseboard gaps, etc. According to a report by the Surgeon General of the United States, (The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, 2006) there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.


Here is a list of tips and strategies from Live Smoke Free, which works with people exposed to smoking in multi-unit housing. These are considered temporary fixes to employ while trying to resolve the smoking problem.

Pads and Seals. Smoke can travel through all kinds of spaces, including: around electrical outlets, power switches, baseboards, vents, and other small openings. Hardware stores often sell outlet seals and other ways to temporarily patch openings. You can also try blocking the openings with heavy padding.

Doors and Windows. Gaps under doorways or around door and window frames can allow smoke into your unit. You can buy special door sweeps and window weather stripping to help reduce smoke transfer.

Fans and Air Cleaners. Running a fan may help move the smoke outdoors or move outdoor air into your unit. The success of running a fan may depend on other factors like the direction of the wind outside or the direction of a draft inside. Air cleaners often mask the smoke odor but do not rid a unit of smoke itself. Be aware that the problem may seem better, but you have not necessarily stopped the source of the problem.

Fill Openings. There are many cracks and gaps in apartment floors and walls. Remember that an apartment is one building divided into many units. This means that air can travel throughout the entire building by means of gaps made for wiring, plumbing, vents, and other structural necessities. Tape, caulk, and latex foam may be used to fill some holes and seal around pipes. You may not be able to see or access all of the gaps in a unit or building, but filling some of the gaps may help reduce smoke in your unit.

Repair Vents. Vents in kitchens and bathrooms may have vent check valves to stop odors from moving from one unit to another. These valves may have to be repaired or replaced.

Heating and Air Systems. Problems with heating and air systems may allow smoke to travel to other units. These systems may have to be inspected and repaired.

Air Filter Face Mask.¬†Avoiding polluted air from cigarette smoke is not always easy. Often times it comes from people in your own family who you live with. There are no physical barriers you can create between you and them. One of the ways you can choose better air quality for yourself, when you can’t choose it for others, is to wear an air pollution face mask. Newer masks have filters to filter out the smallest smoke particles keeping them out of your lungs. Thankfully these air face masks have gotten a modern makeover with style, fashion and trendy design.

The tobacco industry often claims that you can ventilate the problem away. According to a position paper by The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, ventilation cannot completely remove ETS from the environment. Again, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Ventilation systems can also be extremely expensive to build and maintain.

I suggest that you ask the other people in your house to smoke outside, if possible. Smokers are generally conscientious people who don’t want to harm others.

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