(1) Can second-hand smoke seep from one apartment to another?
By Susan McGrath, Seattle Times columnist — The Household Environmentalist, The Times Home/Real Estate section, p. G 5, October 18, 1992.
DEAR MS. H.E.: I’m a non-smoker living in an apartment. My next door neighbor smokes frequently. Cigarette smells are flowing in through the wall sockets and beneath the baseboard and at times are quite strong in my apartment. I’ve tried opening a window, but this only draws more smoke in along the baseboards. I find this particularly annoying because Iʼm allergic to smoke and dust, but is it dangerous? Can I measure the level of the fumes in my apartment? How can I stop the fumes from getting in? Can you recommend any air filtering devices for smoke and dust?
DEAR READER: If you are extremely allergic to smoke, the secondhand smoke you are breathing could be dangerous. It is certainly worth trying to keep that smoke out. However, the amount of smoke you detect is probably not measurable. According to Richard Knights, of Blue Sky Testing Labs, your nose is more sensitive than his instruments. If you have subjected your electrical outlets to the sniff test and are pretty sure they are drawing smoke into your apartment, count the outlets and switch plates on the walls adjoining the offending apartment. Then stop by a hardware store with a good weatherization section and buy foam gaskets for each outlet and switch plate. Buy plastic child-proofing plugs for the outlets, too. Then unscrew the outlet and switchplate covers, insert the gaskets, close them back up, insert the childproofing plugs and keep your fingers crossed that these really were the major pathways.
Look for other wall openings. Or big cracks above the baseboards? — it might be possible to caulk these. Do you use an exhaust fan in the bathroom or kitchen? These will draw air into your apartment. Open a window slightly whenever you use the fan so that you draw in outdoor air, not more smoky neighbor air.
Knights believes that an air cleaner designed to remove particles from the air can reduce your smoke and dust problems. To learn how to choose such a device, call the American Lung Association, at 206-441-5100, and ask to receive a free copy of their excellent pamphlet “Air Cleaner and Your Health.”
Lastly, how polished are your diplomacy skills? And how flush is your wallet? Perhaps your neighbors would allow you to pay to have a quiet exhaust fan installed in their apartment. This could reverse the ﬂow of air from your apartment into theirs, and solve your problem. Donʼt try this unless you are a master of tact! Smokers are a little testy these days.
(2) Smoke from downstairs is driving neighbor nuts
By Susan McGrath, Seattle Times columnist — The Household Environmentalist, The Times Home/Real Estate section, p. G 5, January 8, 1995.
DEAR MS. H.E.: I am looking for a device that measures second-hand smoke. I live in a condominium on the top floor. I can smell cigarette smoke from a unit below me. My condo association has plugged up the wall space in my bathroom, only to have the smell shift to an adjacent closet. Since I have a heightened “olfactory awareness,” — not everyone can smell what I can — hence the need for a measuring device. Also, do you recommend any indoor air cleaners that would eliminate the carcinogens from the air?
DEAR READER: I answered a very similar letter a few years ago. Not much has changed since then. Warm air still rises, and people in upper-level apartments are still breathing air that comes up through lower apartments.
According to Richard Knights, of Blue Sky Testing Labs, the amount of smoke you detect might not be measurable — your nose is more sensitive then his instruments. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t enough secondhand smoke to be unpleasant, and, if you are very sensitive to cigarette smoke, dangerous.
The first thing to do is what you apparently have already begun — plug up all the air holes. Close all your windows and turn on any exhaust fans you have. This should draw air into the apartment, aggravating your problem and helping you in your detective work. Now use your sensitive nose to find those air leaks.
Electrical outlets are one possible culprit. Subject them to the sniff test and if they seem to be drawing smoke into your apartment, count your outlets and switch plates. At a hardware store with a good weatherization section, buy foam gaskets for each outlet and switch plate. Buy plastic child-prooﬁng plugs for the outlets, too. Then unscrew the outlet and switch-plate covers, insert the gaskets, close them back up, and insert the child-prooﬁng plugs.
Carefully look for other openings. Are there big cracks above and below the baseboards? It might be possible to caulk these. Is there a gap where plumbing comes up under the kitchen sink? You can spray foam insulation around the pipes, or simply plug the gaps with rags.
A good habit to get into is opening a window whenever you use a kitchen or bathroom exhaust fan. These appliances create negative air pressure in your apartment, pulling more air through surrounding leaks. An open window will supply fresh air, lessening the pull on that mysterious between-apartment air.
Itʼs possible that your exhaust fan or fans share a common vent with one or more other apartments. If so, Knights thinks itʼs possible that smoky air could leak in through your fan when it is not in use. Leave the fan off for a couple of days and give it a periodic sniff. If you can smell smoke through it, look into having a back-flap installed.
As a second-to-last resort, Knights recommends an air cleaner. To handle cigarette smoke, which is composed of particules and gases, youʼll need a cleaner that can handle both. This means buying a device that has a high-efficiency filter for particles and a charcoal filter for gases. Knights says his first choice is an Aireox Model 45.
Susan McGrath’s column runs in The Times Home/Real Estate section. Send questions and comments to: Household Environmentalist, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.