We’re Hiring at Indoor Science! Learn more about our Job Openings.

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.

Ian Cull

Ian Cull is a nationally recognized expert in the field of indoor air quality. He is the Chief Science Officer of Indoor Science, a company he started in 2004. He speaks around the world on air quality topics and is a training provider of the Indoor Air Quality Association. Mr. Cull is a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH). His degree is in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign. Mr. Cull has developed 50 air quality related courses for the IAQA University and is the author of the book, “Fundamentals of Mold Remediation”. In his words… “Besides being passionate about indoor air quality, I enjoy cycling, music, the Chicago Bulls, and having fun with my three kids.”

10 thoughts on “Cigarette Smoke Testing

    I am having a problem with secondhand smoke in my condo. I have lived here for 20 years and never had a problem, now all of a sudden I smell secondhand smoke almost nonstop. The problem is all of my neighbors say that they are non-smokers? How do I prove that someone is smoking in my condominium complex? If you can’t help me can you send me to someone that can?


    I am trying to prove my neighbor is smoking in their unit because my property manager claims he can’t prove it so he can’t do anything about it. On previous occasions another property manager and a maintenance guy came in and smelled the smoke. The property manager came in today and because I just had my balcony door open to air out the smoke and I had my air freshener plug-in in the outlet in the kitchen where the smoke comes through a lot, he said he only smelled perfume. I have already mentioned in an email the measures I take to get rid of the cigarette smell. He is being a bit hostile with me because I called properties corporate office and told them about the issue. He wants to do the bare minimum and isn’t taking responsibility to catch the person. He is putting it on me and not having legal rights to catch the person in the act. So, I need to get my air tested to show him that cigarette smoke is coming into my unit. The person mainly smokes in the evenings until the early hours of the morning, all day on weekends. Basically when they are in their apartment. It is hard to catch this person and they are doing everything not to catch them. I don’t have a lot of money right now but I need something done. I believe he will more than likely try to make this a legal issue with me. It is like he is more trying to prove me wrong than to follow the property’s lease agreement. Please help!!

    Proving that secondhand smoke is entering your apartment from a neighboring unit is one of the hardest things we air quality professionals deal with. The lab tests available are not as sensitive as our noses, so even at times when you can clearly smell cigarette smoke in your unit it is possible that the lab tests don’t pick up on the smoke at all. The second big part is even if you have the data to back you up, it can be very hard to get landlords and property managers to actually do something to help the situation.

    My suggestion would be to find a local air quality professional that has experience in cigarette smoke testing. You can find professionals at IAQA.org

    Where do I get wipes for testing smoke coming into my apt.? . I wake up , lungs burning. So turn off my heater in cold weather and AC in hot weather . My lease says no smoking. I have to prove who is smoking. Manafegment sends e nails and post signs. No one listening. My health sleep is seriously affected.


    If you are concerned about smoke entering your apartment from a neighbor, you want an air test, not wipes. Wipes sample for compounds which do not easily dissipate into other units, where air testing will look for these indicator compounds which can move from space to space. Depending on where you live, you can find an air quality professional at the IAQA.org

    I need my unit tested. I purchased this condo on the 6th of July. I read the condo guidelines and there is no smoking in the building or units allowed.
    But the Vice President of the Association has her boyfriend living with her and he is a chain smoker. He goes outside has one comes back in and must smoke a oack. The Association knows they ate smoking but do nothing to enforce the rules. She lies to them and it is believed. As the non smoker I have to prove it.
    I just spent over one thousand dollars on a lawyer that was bought off by the Association. How in the hell does that work?
    Larry Ellison was pissed about it. He said: the low life takes money from an elderly lady with cardio vascular problems and says: He is done. With out any results. I need to prove they are smoking so I don’t die from complications or go insane from the smell. It has permeated everything in my unit.
    The appalling thing is I am the only one strong enough to try and stop it. It bothers everyone in this building nut no one has the guts to say anything.
    I think it is disgraceful and disgusting. How disrespectful and selfish people can be. I can’t afford a ton of money because the lawyer ripped me off. I had to put in a new furnace and washer and dryer besides the medical bills I have since moving here. Can you help me out to prove its my neighbors? If you walk into my walk in closet which is the closest to them it will knock you out.


    If you live in the Chicagoland region, give us a call at 312-920-9393. Otherwise, you can search for indoor air quality professionals in your area at this link: https://pro.iaqa.org/


    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.