Secondhand smoke: Testing and Quick Facts

Apr 6, 2021

With everyone spending more time indoors over the last year due to the pandemic, our office has gotten more and more calls asking for secondhand smoke testing in Chicago. Like the name implies, secondhand smoke testing — sometimes called environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) testing — is air quality testing to determine if indoor cigarette smoking is happening nearby.

What is secondhand smoke?

Secondhand smoke, or environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), is a combination of the smoke emitted from the end of a burning cigar or cigarette, and the smoke exhaled by a smoker. ETS contains over 4,000 substances, and according to the EPA, more than 40 of those substances are human carcinogens — and many of them are strong irritants. The EPA also reports that approximately 3,000 nonsmokers die from lung cancer due to secondhand smoke every year. Consequently, the EPA considers secondhand smoke a Group A carcinogen.

Children and those with respiratory issues are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of secondhand smoke. The EPA states that “passive smoking is responsible for between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections in infants and children under 18 months of age annually, resulting in between 7,500 and 15,000 hospitalizations each year.” Children with asthma or other respiratory concerns are at an even elevated risk, and the EPA estimates that “between 200,000 and 1,000,000 asthmatic children have their condition made worse by exposure to secondhand smoke. Passive smoking may also cause thousands of non-asthmatic children to develop the condition each year.”


This testing is most frequently requested in non-smoking apartment buildings when a renter or condo owner is bothered by a smoke-like odor they believe might be coming from a neighboring unit. Testing can verify whether or not cigarette smoke is entering their unit and impacting air quality. 

Another situation where secondhand smoke testing is commonly requested is if a landlord or property owner has reason to believe that a tenant might be breaking the rules of the lease by smoking indoors. In that case, the landlord might request a wipe sample for nicotine, which can test surfaces to see if smoking happened in the past. You can read more about secondhand smoke testing options in this past blog post.


The best way to avoid secondhand smoke is to eliminate the source by not allowing it. It is easy to control the smoking happening in your unit, but it is hard to control what adjacent neighbors are doing. If an adjacent neighbor is smoking, it is best to create a positive pressure inside your unit. Having a box fan in a window blowing outdoor air into your unit can help. Running exhaust fans in your unit may exacerbate the problem as it can pull more of the neighboring smoke in. Also, it is important to seal up any penetrations between units.  There can be small openings around plumbing penetrations and electrical outlets. Shared exhaust ducting can also be a pathway for ETS to migrate. 

If those strategies don’t work, you could also try a portable air cleaner.A HEPA grade air filter can help to filter out particulate matter emitted from the smoking, while an activated carbon filter can help to eliminate odors. Many units combine HEPA and activated carbon.


Secondhand smoke can be a contentious matter between neighbors, tenants and management, or even amongst household members. If you think environmental testing for secondhand smoke might be right for you, give us a call at 312-920-9393 for an over-the-phone quote!