Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Secondhand smoke and multi-unit dwellings

In my last post I commented on allegations by the anti-smoker crowd that secondhand smoke possessed supernatural powers. These otherworldly properties allow it to travel against the wind, drift downwards instead of up, and flow through minute openings in electrical outlets to attack non-smokers.

For the most part, these assertions by the anti-smoker crowd are pure nonsense. Modern methods of building construction already negate the likelihood of secondhand smoke migrating to a neighbour's apartment through most of these routes.

Drywall joints, for example, are taped where individual sheets abut, at corners and along ceiling joints. Drywall compound is added to give the walls a seamless appearance. The housing co-op in which I live was completed in 1993. I have never found a crack of any kind in the walls, let alone one that would allow secondhand smoke to migrate to a neighbour's unit.

And, even in much older buildings, there are inexpensive construction techniques that can be used to resolve such issues.

Older buildings, for example, may have used crown moulding to seal the joints where the walls meet the ceiling. A similar condition might exist along the baseboards, where the walls meet the floor. The simple remedy is to remove the moulding or the baseboards, fill the gaps with any of the dozens of products available for the purpose (silicone, expanding foam, etc.) and replace the moulding or baseboards. Problem solved with very little cost or effort.

Smoke traveling through drains is a non-starter. All drains are equipped with a P-trap (unless you're living in the bush and still have to make the trot to the little old shack out back). The P-trap holds standing water and is designed to prevent sewer gases from entering the home. And, if the sewer gases can't get in, smoke is unlikely to get out.

These days, special care is taken in the construction of bathrooms and kitchens, especially around plumbing fixtures. Care is taken, not because of potential problems with secondhand smoke, but because of the possibility of water damage from leaking water lines or drains. That's why, if you look closely, you will see fine beads of silicone around bath tubs, toilet bowls, counter tops, etc. And, if water can be prevented from seeping into walls, secondhand smoke doesn't stand a chance.

And, once again, in older buildings, solutions are inexpensive and really quite simple.

In my co-op, most of the apartments have only one door to a common hallway, although some multi-level units have two. So is it possible that smoke could travel through a crack under the door, into the hallway, then travel back into my neighbour's unit?

I decided to check it out. The idea was to have someone stand in the hallway while I stood in the apartment, close to the closed door, puffing merrily away on a Putter's Lights (and taking an occasional sip from a cold can of Keith's Ale). The observer in the hall would try and determine how much smoke was escaping into the hallway.

I lit up a fag, with the door wide open and advised the hallway monitor (my wife) to keep a close eye on what happened after I closed the door. I knew immediately it wasn't going to work. As I exhaled after a lengthy drag, a cloud of smoke blew back into my face.

The air make-up fans draw fresh air from the roof and force it down into the hallways, thereby equalizing the air pressure inside the building with the air pressure outside. Theoretically, if the air pressure outside exceeds the air pressure inside, the building could implode. And, as long as those fans were running, there was no way cigarette smoke from my apartment was going to get past the threshold of the door (and the current of air from the air make-up fans) and into the hallway.

Of course, if you smoked in the hallway, the smoke would seep into the apartment through the crack under the door. But, it could only seep in through under the door because there was weatherstripping on both sides of the door frame and along the top, creating a tight seal.

The solution to the problem could be as simple as adding weatherstripping along the underside of the door. Or, to prohibit smoking in the halls and common areas (already in effect), not in the member unit. And, I had to ask myself how many tenants stand in the hallway smoking cigarettes at any rate.

One area where the anti-smoker control freaks might have a legitimate grievance is from smoke migrating to an adjacent unit through duct work. I share a common wall with one neighbour who told me he could smell smoke in a bedroom on the shared wall through an air duct. I asked why he hadn't mentioned it over the five years he had lived next door. He gave me a puzzled look and said: “No big deal, Matt. I fixed it.”

Knowing the man has a degree in mechanical engineering, I was curious about how he'd resolved the problem. His hi-tech solution: he'd cut a piece of cardboard to fit the 6” X 10” vent, used duct tape to secure it to the inside of the vent cover and put the vent cover back in place. That's why he makes the big bucks.

In the case of older buildings, some legitimate concerns might be raised, but the remedies are usually inexpensive and are not labour intensive.

And, the problems are by no means universal.

For example, not all buildings use forced air heating which might allow secondhand smoke to move from one unit to another through the duct work. There are thousands of older, two and three storey walk-ups in the city that still rely on hot water radiators to heat their unit. The semi-detached townhouse units in my co-op use electric baseboard heating. In those situations, there's little probability of smoke migrating from one unit to the next via duct work.

The proposition that secondhand smoke seeps into a neighbour's unit through “electrical outlets, plumbing, duct work, ceiling light fixtures, cracks in walls, floors or doors and through common areas, such as hallways,” is a classic example of the scare-mongering tactics employed by the anti-smoker crowd.

And, with the fear, rational consideration of the problem and the common sense solutions which are readily available go out the window.

The anti-smoker brigade proposes a one-size-fits-all solution: impose a blanket smoking ban in multi-unit buildings. They would deprive millions of Canadians of their right to personal autonomy and choice. They would allow police, or other authorities, the right to intrude on the privacy of Canadians engaged in a perfectly legal activity. And, they would do it without a single shred of evidence that a problem of any proportion exists and without exploring other, less intrusive options.

More bullshit and bafflegab from morally bankrupt anti-smoker fanatics.


Michael J. McFadden said...

Nice analysis Rambler! And your comments about the smoke traveling down the hall to sneak in under the neighbor's door reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago after reading an article in which an Anti was complaining about smoke traveling across a restaurant and getting on her expensive food...


The article included a statement from a local Antismoker named Ms. Andersen who said:

"The smoke from (a burning cigarette) is more toxic than main-stream smoke. Second-hand smoke travels 50 feet to land in a plate of food that I just paid $25 for,"

Her concern brought about the following image:

Evil ETS…

Eeeeviiiiillll ETS skulks down the aisles, past the waiters’ table and the salad cart, past floral bouquet and the innocent diners, looking for Andersen... searching for Anderson… the ubiquitous Andersen... Andersen with the big quivering nostrils... Andersen with the oogling oozing outrageously orange olfactory orifices...

## AHHHH!!!! FOUND HER!!!!!!

::jumping into Anderson’s $25 plate of GreaseFries (TM) and rubbing orgasmically all over her oils::

Ahhhh.... Nothing like a good meal after a smoke....


Anonymous said...

I came across your post searching for a solution to stop the smoke creeping into my apartment! Quite contrary to what you claim, I live in a modern bldg in Vancouver and cigarette smoke does get into one of the rooms that we use as our living room. My young son and myself spend quite a lot of time in this room and are exposed to breathing the nasty smell of our neighbour's smoke day and night. The smoke can get so thick that you would think someone had smoked in our room just a few minutes earlier! I own the place, so moving out is out of the equation. I have complained a few times to the property management, but seems the neighbour can't drag his lazy bum to the balcony to smoke! So we have to suffer! Now I am just trying to find a way to block the smoke from getting into our room and save us from getting intoxicated!
I don't care if the neighbour wants to kill himself with chain smoking, but I don't want to breath the smoke or even smell it in my room, cloths, furniture... And that is my right!

The Old Rambler said...

It's difficult to give advice (if, indeed that's what you seek) on a specific problem without a good deal more information. A modern building, if poorly constructed, is no guarantee that tobacco smoke will not enter your unit.

You say the smoke is only a problem in one room in the unit. This would suggest that the problem is along a common wall or that smoke is coming in through an open window. According to a recent Decima Poll conducted for Health Canada, “Residents of apartments in multi-story buildings are the most likely to indicate that the smoke came through an open window or door (74%) . The obvious solution is to close the windows.

Or you could discuss, with building management, the possibility of having the apartment sealed; along baseboards, ceiling joints, etc to prevent entry at those points.

However, the tone of your e-mail suggests you may be exaggerating the problem. “The smoke can get so thick that you would think someone had smoked in our room just a few minutes earlier!” “I don't want to breath the smoke or even smell it in my room, cloths, furniture... And that is my right!”

The point of my post was not to claim that smoke couldn't enter another unit, but to point out remedial action that might be taken to eliminate it, other than denying smokers their fundamental rights. However, finding solutions often requires patience, co-operation and compromise

The tone of your e-mail, however, suggests you're less interested in finding a mutually agreeable solution than in denigrating smokers. “[T]he neighbour can't drag his lazy bum to the balcony to smoke!”

If you're really interested in controlling the smoke rather than the smoker, CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing) has a very good brochure, “About your apartment”, available from their website. It discusses the ways and means of preventing odours (including tobacco smoke) from migrating from one apartment to another.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply. Well, there is no exaggeration in this case! And no the windows are closed when the smoke gets in! This morning I left the windows open for 4 hours with the bathroom fan running so that the smoke gets out and I am not kidding. I have to do this to get rid of smoke no matter if it is freezing, raining, or snowing outside!

The tone of your post suggests that non-smokers are ganging up on smokers on bogus claims and that made me write to you to say that no it happens and as much as it is the right of smokers to smoke in their units, it is the right of non-smokers to breathe fresh air in the comfort of their homes! (From your post: "The proposition that secondhand smoke seeps into a neighbour's unit through “electrical outlets, plumbing, duct work, ceiling light fixtures, cracks in walls, floors or doors and through common areas, such as hallways,” is a classic example of the scare-mongering tactics employed by the anti-smoker crowd.")

It turns out that the neighbour's bathroom is next to the the room I mentioned and that is how the smoke gets into our unit. And funny enough, there is a balcony next to that bathroom that they prefer not to use when smoking (that is the reason for my "lazy" comment you mentioned). I am trying to find alternate solutions that doesn't involve co-operation from the neighbour as that has proved fruitless!
Believe me, I prefer to focus my energy on other things than fretting about why and how the smoke gets into this room!

The Old Rambler said...

It's unfortunate that you are not on better terms with your neighbour. It will make it that much more difficult to resolve your problem in a co-operative, amicable manner.

But, there are some troubling aspects to your definition of the problem. For starters, you claim the neighbour's bathroom is adjacent to the only room where you have a problem. I know of no smokers who are inclined to chain smoke in the bathroom.

Still, you might ask building management to check out the neighbours bathroom to see if there are any gaps around the plumbing fixtures, drains, etc which have not been properly sealed. You might also have them check to see that the neighbour's bathroom exhaust system is in good working order and properly vented to the outside. Have you tried sealing any gaps along the floor or ceiling joints in your unit where smoke might enter?

You may not be inclined to fret “about why and how the smoke” gets into the room. But, if you want to resolve the problem, you'll have to determine the point of entry. Once you know how the smoke is getting into that room, you're only a step away from figuring out how to prevent it.

You seem resolute in your opinion that the only means of resolving the issue is to have your neighbour retire to the balcony anytime he wants to light up. But, demanding that your neighbour surrender his rights to protect your own is an unreasonable solution unless, and until, all other options have been exhausted.

Perhaps you should concentrate more on the problem itself, rather than attempting to control your neighbour's behaviour. Do you really want him standing on the balcony whether “it is freezing, raining, or snowing outside. The point of my original post was that reasonable people could find reasonable solutions without violating anyone's rights.

Sorry I couldn't be of more help.

PS: No, I don't believe that non-smokers are “ganging-up” on smokers. The secondhand smoke hysteria is being propagated by a handful of anti-smoker zealots who have taken it upon themselves to rid the world of smokers. Don't buy into their bullshit and bafflegab.

Michael J. McFadden said...

To Anonymous: While you may have already tried this to the best of your abilities (I noted your comment about tring a fan at one point) I would encourage you to look into that option again as an approach that will certainly be less stresful than instigating a fight with a neighbor.

Since you've localized where the smoke is coming in, you *should* be able to arrange some form of positive air pressure in that room from some other location in your apartment. It really shouldn't take much pressure to keep the smoke odor out. And if you still sometimes get the scent of it, try thinking of how you'd feel if it were a cooking odor rather than someone smoking. In practical terms there's no real difference from a health perspective and it might help a bit with the level of annoyance you feel.

If the fan option costs you a significant amount of extra money in heating/cooling (say more than $20 / month) and you're still on good enough terms with the neighbor, maybe you could approach them with the idea that you've found a solution that you can both be happy with, but that looking at your bills over the last X# of months shows that it's costing you $35 a month extra and you were wondering if you could ask them to split the cost. My guess however is that the amount of positive air pressure needed shouldn't result in anything near that sort of utility cost.

Michael J. McFadden
Author of "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains"