Saturday, October 24, 2009

Secondhand smoke travels through solid walls

Peel Region (west of Toronto) has apparently been flooded with complaints about secondhand smoke seeping into the dwellings of non-smokers from other units and open windows. OK, so maybe it's not a flood, but the five complaints a month that have been pouring in were serious enough for Commissioner of Health Services Janette Smith, and Dr. David Mowat, Peel's medical officer of health to call for a smoking ban.

The region's public health officials have compiled a report suggesting Peel council demand that Queen's Park (the provincial government) enact a province wide ban on smoking in apartments and condos. The objective, of course, is to protect non-smoking residents in multi-unit dwellings from exposure to second-hand smoke.

The dynamic duo of healthscare professionals claim in their report. "Tobacco smoke can seep from various openings in a multi-unit dwelling, including electrical outlets, plumbing, duct work, ceiling light fixtures, cracks in walls, floors or doors and through common areas, such as hallways. Some units may share ventilation or heating systems, which can further spread the smoke throughout a building." Uh-huh.

I have read of the mystical powers of tobacco smoke; its ability to travel great distances against the wind, to pass through solid walls, to worm its way through electrical fixtures, etc., but I've always remained a skeptic. Could the deadly concoction of chemicals from the lit end of a fag really migrate from one apartment to another in sufficient quantities to cause death or serious illness? Through the plumbing?

Now, I have heard that some people like to browse through the latest edition of Popular Mechanics when they, er . . . do their business. I do not keep magazines in my bathroom. It's strictly an in and out affair. And, smoking in the shower is the next best thing to impossible; fags are very hard to light when they're all wet and soggy.

But, does the smoke from the living room travel the 22 feet down the hallway to the bathroom, turn the corner, navigate to the bathroom sink, resist the tendency to travel upwards, make its way down the drainpipe, past the P-trap, and enter my neighbour's unit through the drain of his bathtub? Are these people serious?

My old English teacher used to have a sign above the blackboard that read: “Impossible is a word found only in the dictionary of fools.” (I've often wondered if Bonaparte uttered those immortal words before or after Waterloo.)

At any rate, I hesitate to use the word impossible lest I be branded a fool. But, it's highly improbable that secondhand smoke could make such a journey. Unless, of course, it's possessed by evil spirits with a grudge against my neighbours.

In my bathroom, I found no gaps where the walls met the ceiling. They had been sealed with drywall tape and several layers of drywall compound during construction. There was a neatly laid bead of silicone around the back of the bath tub; another along the floor at the foot of the tub. The silicone is meant to prevent water damage inside the walls or along the floorboards. But if water can't get through, how can smoke?

In addition, the bathroom exhaust fan is tied into the light switch so that when you turn on the lights, you also activate the fan which vents directly to the outside. So, unless someone was perched on the throne, reading Popular Mechanics by candlelight while smoking up a storm, my neighbour is not likely to be bothered by secondhand smoke intruding on the “quiet enjoyment” of his premises. And, even then it's a stretch.

Bullshit and Bafflegab. On to the kitchen.

After a thorough investigation, I determined that it was unlikely smoke could move from one unit to another via the drains. The smoke would have to travel downwards, penetrate the standing water in both my P-trap and the neighbours. So that conduit was ruled out.

But, it might get through the openings where the pipes enter the wall. If the smoke traveled downwards, made its way through the rear of the cupboards, seeped through a similar opening on my neighbours side of the wall and into his unit. As noted previously, nothing is impossible.

So I removed the basket of cleaning material and the cute little garbage containers from beneath the sink. I lit up a fag, poked my head into the cupboard and prepared to bombard my neighbour with 4,000 deadly toxins.

Shit. Like in the bathroom, someone had plugged the opening around the pipes with silicone. No way any smoke was getting through there, even if it was anorexic. I withdrew from the confined space which was rapidly filling with smoke and making my eyes water.

OK, I thought, maybe the smoke could force itself through a gap between the countertop and the wall, down to the floor, find a crack where the floor meets the wall and steal into my neighbours unit? Nope. Along the ledge between the countertop and the wall behind it, was another neatly laid bead of silicone.

Even if I wanted to terrorize my neighbour with secondhand smoke, I couldn't. Unless, of course, I was prepared to spend some time with a brace-and-bit and make a mess of my walls. And, I suspect he might be more pissed off about the holes drilled in his wall than secondhand smoke.

How much smoke is likely to escape into a neighbours apartment through “cracks in walls, floors or doors”. Think about it folks. When drywall is installed, gaps between individual sheets and along the ceiling are sealed with drywall tape and two or more layers of drywall compound. The same technique is used in corners.

And, just how much secondhand smoke is actually going to seep through a ceiling fixture or an electrical outlet? Use a little common sense. If you were trapped in a sealed room and about to run out of oxygen, just how long do you think you'd last if the only source of air was coming through a light switch or a wall receptacle?

Yet, the anti-smoker crowd want people to believe that vast quantities of secondhand smoke are pouring into their neighbour's apartment through plumbing, cracks in the walls and electrical outlets. It's insane.

Let's be clear. There are ways that smoke can enter your neighbour's unit. But wall receptacles and cracks in the walls are not likely to be among them.

I'll have more to say on this lunacy in my next post.


jacqui said...

beautifully written post, so so true! I am looking forward to the next one!

Anonymous said...


May I suggest you re-read the report. I think you've missed the point.

MOH's in Ontario have a statutory duty to undertake efforts such as this to protect the public's health. Peel's MOH has specifically stated that measures such as those proposed in the report are a matter of balancing public health and personal autonomy (as are most smoking-related proposals). He goes on to say that this debate is of course best left to our elected representatives in the legislature, but does not relieve our public health officials of their duty to raise awareness of issues as they see fit.

You are of course entitled to make conclusions based on as much non-empirical evidence as you like. But I would caution you against impugning the credibility of public health officials.

"Trust me, I'm a doctor." Yes I think I will trust a public health physician who has spent a career protecting the public's health, thank you very much. Or should I trust some guy with a blog? That, sir, would truly be "lunacy".

Michael J. McFadden said...

I think my favorite bit of Anti nuttiness in this area has to be the one where some psycho tried comparing the freedom to smoke in one's apartment to the freedom to fire shotgun blasts through the walls into neighboring units.

I've pointed folks to the ASDS Recovery page before:

and it's quite true: 30 or 40 years ago these sad people would have been referred to psychiatric counseling and at least some of them would have either been medicated or simply locked up for antisocial and violent tendencies. Because the sickness is currently "socially approved" it is being medically ignored.

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

The Old Rambler said...

Unfortunately, evidence that secondhand smoke is a serious health hazard is in short supply. So, this poor old blogger has little choice but to rely on common sense. MOH's in Ontario may have a statutory duty to undertake efforts to protect the public's health.

But, before they infringe on the personal autonomy of anyone, they should be required to demonstrate that the threat they are protecting the public from is legitimate.

Perhaps you should revisit the scientific evidence on SHS.

Unknown said...

Actually, smoking is now considered a mental illness and is listed as such in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As to who to trust on the issues of the harm associated with cigarette smoke and it potential for migration to other units in an apartment complex I find that most people speak from their bias and not from their intellect. Certainly the addictive characteristics of cigarette smoking creates a strong bias in the smoker. Moreover, many smokers are chain smokers who fail to mitigate the impact of their smoking on others by opening a window and using a fan. Smokers also have no problem leaving their cigarette butts on the front lawn of the apartment complexes where I reside which leads me to believe that most smokers simply don't give a damn about others when it comes to their habit. I, personally have seen apartments where the walls are completely covered with a thick layer of yellow nicotine, which makes me think many smokers are not inclined to be concerned about the property rights of others. Smokers also obviously don't care about their own health so why should they conern themselves with the health of others. Defending second hand smoke borders on sociopathic behavior if you ask me.

The Old Rambler said...

Actually, Harry, smoking is not considered a “mental illness” by DSMD-IV. Nor is smoking a physical ailment. There is a statistical association between smoking and several classifications of disease. However, for most of these “smoking related diseases”, the association is tenuous at best, since the relative risk is less than two and barely meets the standard for statistical significance.

Perhaps this misconception is the basis of your irrational fear of secondhand smoke, and your deep-rooted hatred of smokers. In many aspects of human behavior, perception is the key to a healthy mind. Phobias develop when the perception is at odds with the reality.

My advice is that you seek professional help to overcome your fear and confront your errant thinking. The underlying cause of your fear is of little concern; the goal is to accept reality for what it is rather than what you believe it to be. Only then will you be able to conquer your fear and debate the issue at hand rationally, without the disparaging remarks about smokers, or the ad hominid attacks.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to get into a debate with anyone, but my question is, if you can smell the smoke, then doesn't that mean it is getting into your apartment somehow?

I have no idea which of my neighbor's smoke, since they can't smoke outside here in California, but I can smell the smoke in my apartment coming from somewhere, if I can smell it, then that means I can be harmed by it, and the smell is irritating enough to flare up my Asthma.

I am glad your apartment is built so well that smoke is safely secured like a vacuum inside, but I guess my building isn't up to the same standard.

The Old Rambler said...

Anonymous, just a few notes on your comment.

Healthy debate (as opposed to argumentation) is good for the soul; it means you haven't closed your mind completely to opposing points of view. Don't deprive yourself of an opportunity to expand your horizons by refusing to engage in healthy debate.

The smell of smoke doesn’t necessarily correlate with the amount of secondhand smoke in a room. As a youngster, I could sit on the front porch at my uncle's farm and smell cow dung. The actual cow patties were nowhere in the immediate vicinity of the house. They were the length of a football field away.

So, no. The fact that you can smell it, doesn't mean it can harm you.

I don't have asthma. So it is difficult for me to speak from a personal point of view. My understanding, from friends with asthma (including many who smoke) is that asthma symptoms can be brought on by exposure to any number of triggers; exercise, cold air, fumes from common household cleaners, perfumes, air pollutants, intense emotional stress, smoke, etc.

Clearly, if the smell of smoke causes your asthma to flare up, you have legitimate cause for complaint. Any difference in opinion will likely result from the means employed to resolve the problem.

Whether your building is up to the same standard as mine touches on the point I was trying to make in my article. Not all buildings are designed the same. Therefore the solutions will vary depending on the construction methods used in the building design. Imposing a smoking ban without investigating other potential solutions is punitive and probably unnecessary.

The latest survey from Health Canada claims that 80% of the residents in multi-unit dwellings have never, or rarely, experienced secondhand smoke seeping into their unit. And, 62% of those report the source as coming through an open window or door.

Your first step should be to identify the source of the smell. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I found this page trying to understand myself how cigarette smoke can travel through walls. Visit your neighbors apartment and see if you can smell smoke. I often could in the bathroom with past residents. It is not about visibly seeing actual smoke but the smell that comes with it.

New neighbors have moved in and our basement smells like an ashtray. My landlord, a fellow smoker is in disbelief. Well, I am a non smoker and i am suffering from headaches. The smell travels up through the basement doorway, even when the door is closed. When the heater comes on it blasts the smell thought the rest of the house.

If you knew something about science, you would understand that smells are actually small particles of an object that are free in the air. When you smell animal feses you are actually breathing tiny invisible pieces of it. This carries the toxins and all that good stuff with it. That is why household cleaners and air fresheners are now also connected to cancer. You are actually breathing in the particles of the toxins.

The Old Rambler said...

A 2007 Decima Research poll notes that roughly two-thirds of residents in multi-unit dwellings have never experienced SHS seeping or drifting into their apartment. An additional 15% claim it happens rarely. So for almost 80% of those living in multi-unit dwellings, SHS does not appear to be a problem.

Of the remainder, those residing in apartment/ basement suites in houses are far more likely to report SHS seeping into their unit than condo owners or those living in large apartment buildings.

The fault does not lie entirely with the smoker, but the building construction which allows smells, including tobacco smoke, cooking odours, etc. to migrate from one part of the house to another. As you noted, the smell travels, not through solid walls, but through open doors (or doors that have not been properly sealed) and in some cases through heating vents.

The nose is a wonderful instrument. If it's working correctly you can sense a skunk from only 0.000,000,000,000,071 of an ounce of offensive spray. I suspect that very little, if any, particulate matter could be found in that amount of spray.

A good honker warns us about rotten milk, a burning cigarette, or a pissed off skunk. But, the fact that you can smell something doesn't suggest the presence of particulate matter. Male luna moths, for example, track females from 5 miles away. Given the size of a female luna moth and the amount of particulate matter she might give off, if any, I doubt even hurricane force winds could carry the particulate matter for five miles.

I may not know anything about science, but this old country boy knows bull feces when he smells it, with or without the presence of particulate matter.

Anonymous said...

Love that last post, Old Rambler. What exactly IS second hand smoke, anyway? I know people who flat out claim, "If I can smell the smoke, then I am breathing in second hand smoke." What a lot of nonsense.

I DO believe that sitting in a bar FULL of smoke, and chain smokers, will fully expose your lungs AND nose to smoke. That is a no brainer. When you can't see to the other side of the room, because of smoke. It's thick enough to call second hand smoke.

However, somewhere between being surrounded by a dense cloud and sniffing a smoker's sweat shirt before you throw it in the wash, there must be made a reasonable, dare I say logical distinction between merely smelling smoke and "passive smoking".

These anti-smoking wing-nuts would have you believe that they are aggravating their asthma, destroying their heart and lung health and even acquiring cancer simply by smelling a smoker come back from a smoke break on the outdoor patio.

Why people don't bring up this obvious straw man illogical fallacy, of equating a bad smell with chemical warfare, more often I just don't get. Don't let them drag you into their BS, folks!

If you want to complain about the smell, go for it, I'm not going to try and convince you that smoke smells like honeysuckles, but stop the hyperbole and histrionics trying to equate your aromatic preferences with chronic poisoning and manslaughter.

One that makes such an argument is either ignorant of the facts, uninterested in the facts do to their own personal agenda, or an outright liar and offender of personal rights.

Get real.

The Old Rambler said...


You're right, of course.

The problem is that most people don't have the time to research the wild claims made by the fanatics. And, those that do are usually branded as apologists for the tobacco industry or conspiracy theorists.

But, there is no conspiracy. It's an all out assault on personal autonomy; some mindless experiment in behavioural control. And, unfortunately, the anti-smoker campaign is having very serious socio-economic consequences.

Daniel said...

I actually found this post while searching for ways to stop second hand smoke from entering my bedroom. The electrical and telephone outlet next to my bed is the source of the second hand smoke entering my unit from my neighbours unit in my condo in North York. I'll was looking for solutions on this. I guess I'll install pads inside the outlet area which hopefully will help reduce the flow.

Anonymous said...

I recently just moved into an apt. from a house. Guess what? There is an obvious odor of cigarette smoke in the bathroom. Where does it come from? How can you explain that? It is more noticeable in the evening. My 7 yr old daughter has even commented "that it smells yucky in the bathroom". Hence, my internet search and finding this blog.

Andrew said...

Instead of just ranting on about what is "impossible", why don't you come to my apartment where second-hand smoke is most definitely coming in from neighbors -- and not through the windows.

You make some wild assumptions about the air-tight quality of construction in buildings. Let me set you straight. In my apartment, there is a gap of a half to a full inch where the pipe goes into the wall under the sink. Most likely, there is a similar gap in the neighboring unit, where the smoker is and which is likely causing the problem in my bathroom.

Next, on to the laundry room. Behind the dryer, there is an access panel to get to plumbing in the wall. Open this panel, and you are greeting with a nice fresh breeze of cigarette smell. I can't tell you how it's getting there, but it is. And until I placed a very solid seal around that access panel, the smell was getting into my laundry room.

Next, where the vent ducts meet the ceiling drywall, there is nothing attaching the ducts to the ceiling. In other words, you can just push up on the ductwork and it will lift slightly. There is no even the slightest seal. And guess what the attic crawlspace above smells like from the smokers in the building? Smoke. And do you think for one second it's not creeping into my apartment?

I could go on, but I hope you get my point. You are making assumptions about construction based solely on your home's construction and your biased toward smoking.

To be clear, I have no problem with smokers doing what they want in their homes -- but I also have the right to not have smoke in my home. So don't treat those of us in my situation like crazy fools who don't know what we're talking about. Second-hand smoke and smell DOES get around. Air is as fluid as water and can get to and through places just like liquid -- it takes only as small a gap as you can imagine for air to get through, carrying with it any odors or particles.

I see below that you moderate and approve all comments; I hope I haven't wasted my time and my comment will be posted. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the last poster! You seem to be incredibly bias. You are basing the fact that second hand smoke cannot get around based solely on your own place, which is illogical, and therefore flawed. Not everyone's apartment ( or flats as we call them in the UK) are exactly like yours! I don't smoke nor do I have a problem with smokers- it's their life, and choice to waste their life smoking. However, there is definitely a problem when a smoker's habit begins to interfere with a non- smoker's rights. Due to smoking having such negative ramifications, a non smoker's right clearly trumps a smoker's.

I've recently moved into a new flat in a converted house. My downstairs neighbour smokes. The smell definitely travels in through the front door, which we have recently sealed. But I was still smelling smoke strangely in my bathroom. My suspicions were proved when returning home for the Christnas holidays, I realised my clothes, towel etc stinks of passive smoke. The smell is so faint, but I hate it. I don't want people to think that I'm a smoker or worse that I stink! I think the culprit is the air vents- there is a very active one in the bathroom and two in every room. I obviously will take this issue up with my landlord- and implore them to seal all the vents! We cannot share the ventilation system with people who are smokers! I have always suffered from chest issues, asthma etc. Of course I'm not implying that they should not smoke in their flat, just rather that if they do it should not affect me, my health or my 'quiet enjoyment' of my property, which of course is recognised by the law!

By the way, I also came across this blog after researching my current situation!

The Old Rambler said...

I readily admit to a certain amount of bias. However, the purpose of the post (actually two consecutive posts) was to point out that there are other solutions to the problem that should be investigated before infringing on the personal liberties of smokers or throwing the 20% to 25% of the population who smoke into the street.

You’re claim that you smell “passive” smoke rather than tobacco smoke suggests to me that you’ve been reading too much of the hate literature and propaganda from the anti-smoker brigade.

Anonymous said...

For the people who got to this page looking for a way to stop the noxious stench of second hand cigarette smoke from coming into your apartment, yes smoke does come through and/or around electrical receptacles and outlet covers, drains, bathroom ventilation fans, light fixtures, conduit, and piping. Consider sealing these modes of entry if possible.

Ask a firefighter. Talk to a claims adjuster or a building engineer. Google fire research. Or if that doesn't drive the point home, invite your neighbor in the next unit over to torch his kitchen while you're at work, then you'll see it visually when you get home. Mine did (and I didn't even have to ask.) Fire didn't destroy over $10,000 worth of my property, but smoke surely did. I vividly remember walking into that nightmare and seeing the last wisps coming from the drains, the electrical outlets, and remnants and heavy staining around them, and even the toilet.

Cigarette smoke obviously isn't nearly as copious or concentrated as fallout from a full-blown fire, but it's a stench that absolutely travels along the above-mentioned avenues, and will eventually ruin your upholstered furniture and clothing. If you can smell the putrid garlic fish that your neighbors cook, you will smell their cigarette smoke too, and undoubtedly much more often.

If you're stuck where you're at, my advice is to seal the obvious and not-so-obvious openings in the walls, the ceilings, and even cover the drain openings when not in use, and consider a high-quality ($$$$) air filtering unit. Yes, it's ridiculous to have to consider all this. It's even more ridiculous that renters have to put up with it, and on top of that, that the people responsible for the stench will sit there and deny that any of this even occurs. But typical.

Proph said...

I've done some research on this as I am a smoker in New York State. The American Cancer Society places quite a distinction between SHS (the smoke you can see), third hand smoke (smoke that has settled - creating dust), and smoke odor (self explanatory?).
They 'claim' SHS is harmful. Ok. I don't believe it. Not only can smoking NOT cause illnesses single-hand
edly (trust me, it's WAY more complicated than that to make you sick) but there is also not one documented case of allergy to smoke, noted by the WHO.
As for third hand smoke, they're not sure about that yet but are currently researching it. Given the current hysteria, I think we can already speculate with great accuracy what their findings will be.
Now to my personal favorite! The American Cancer Society states that there is no health risk posed by smoke odor! Which, for most of the complainers here, if you can't SEE the smoke, RELAX!
I am also in the alternative health field. And for all of those with asthma, odor sensitivities, headaches, and all the other ailments that usually manifest in non-smokers, they are usually acquired over years of bad lifestyle choices, generally food related.
Honestly, if you're living in an apartment, either you or your neighbors won't be affecting eachother long enough to kill eachother.
However complaining and making the smoker worry whether they will be evicted or not can have immediate adverse health effects.
For those suffering from asthma, headaches, and sensitivities, do a juice fast, colon cleanse, and then start a whole food, organic diet and you can probably kick a lot of your health issues and feel better overall.
Although when you can't complain about anything but the unpleasant smell, you'll have to find another hobby. Hopefully one that doesn't infringe on people's liberty. Although if you want to complain about the smell of fast food invading your homes, I wouldn't be opposed!

Anonymous said...

I came across this blog because I wanted to know how far cigarette smoke travels. My partner smokes, but only in the living room. However, the clothes in my wardrobe stink of old tabacco smoke even though my bedroom is 20 metres away from the living room and the door is nearly always closed. I'm not worried about this affecting my health, I just HATE THE SMELL. I don't think smokers like it either.
Something interesting is that often, smells from other people's kitchens sometimes get into my bedroom, but my clothes still smell of cigarettes, never of fried garlic or boiled coliflower..