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Cigarette Smoke Testing

secondhand smoke, cigarette

How Can You Test For Cigarette Smoke?

Cigarette smoke can be one of the most frustrating odor issues in a multi-family building. Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) secondhand smoke (smoke exhaled into the surrounding air from a smoker, or the smoke from the end of a lit cigarette) and thirdhand smoke (the stale cigarette odor that has been absorbed and released back into the surrounding air by other items such as clothing, furniture, and building materials). The multitude of health effects with smoking cigarettes is widely known, but ETS can have its own set of acute and chronic health effects to the nonsmokers who can be exposed. ETS can cause short term effects such as triggering asthma, eye and respiratory irritation, and hoarseness. Long term exposure to ETS has been documented to cause the development of asthma and is also the second leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. In a multi-family building you can’t control what your neighbors do in their units, and due to the complex nature of how air moves from one space to another in a building, you might have cigarette smoke odors in your home even if you have never even lit a cigarette indoors. In a situation like this, how can you test for ETS to prove it is entering your unit?

There are a few ways to test for ETS, however, it can be very difficult to detect it with the available laboratory tests. Cigarette smoke is made up of hundreds of different chemicals and also particulate matter, so laboratories have a difficult job in developing analyses that can reliably be used to report on the presence of tobacco smoke. Laboratory tests typically use “indicator compounds”.  These are chemicals that are found in cigarette smoke and do not have other common sources in the indoor environment. This way the laboratory can determine if cigarette smoke is present based on the results for these compounds. A key drawback is that in our experience the human nose is more sensitivee to the odor of cigarette smoke than the current laboratory tests. Just simply smelling the odor does not mean the laboratory tests will always indicate that tobacco smoke is present.

Residual smoke odors may be detected with a wipe sample of hard surfaces. These wipes are analyzed in the laboratory for nicotine, a common ETS marker. Surfaces in areas experiencing tobacco smoke odors don’t always have detectable levels of nicotine. Surfaces most likely to be positive for nicotine are those close to recent smoking activities.

Yet another way to test for tobacco smoke is to monitor for particulate matter and maintain an odor log. This way we can see if there is an impact on the levels of particulate matter in the air when cigarette smoke is smelled in the unit. This method can be done over a longer period of time than is allowed with laboratory tests, so it may be preferred in situations when the pattern of the smell is unpredictable. Controlling cigarette from entering your unit can be even more difficult than testing, which you can read about on our blog here.

Each project is unique, and depending on the situation, it may call for more than one method to help document the cigarette odor in your home. If you are experiencing cigarette smoke issues in your home, contact us to see what we can do to help.

Dylan McIntosh

Dylan McIntosh

Dylan McIntosh is a Senior Project Manager that performs indoor air quality assessments, industrial hygiene testing, and laboratory mold analysis. Mr. McIntosh holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Biology from the University of Illinois - Springfield. Dylan is a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) and an Pan American Aerobiology Certification Board (PAACB) Certified Spore Analyst. In his words… “Throughout my life, I always had a dream of becoming an astronaut. That dream hasn’t worked out (yet) so I started a career in the next best thing, indoor air quality! In my free time I enjoy outdoor activities with my dog, cooking, and being involved with A Special Wish - Chicago; a local charity.”

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2 thoughts on “Cigarette Smoke Testing


    I currently work for a freight company, as you are aware it is now illegal for smoking in work vehicle / trucks we have a few drivers who continue to smoke, but we are finding hard to actually get proof.

    My question is do you know of any products that could help to identify who is and catch them as we want to provide a healthy environment for all our drivers.



    There are no devices or instruments that would work in this situation, and collecting a laboratory test after each driver’s shift would be very expensive. Honestly, my best suggestion for a situation like this would be to install a camera in the cab.