Guest blog by Marilena Savva, MSc student at Aberdeen University
An increasing number of people are annoyed and upset by the smell of tobacco smoke entering their homes because their neighbours smoke.
There is no law to prevent this smoke drift as the ban on tobacco use in enclosed public places doesn’t extend to common stairwells and private residences.
For non-smokers, second-hand smoke (SHS) is more than just a nuisance. It has been shown to have acute and chronic effects on the health of those who breathe it in.
It has been linked to a wide range of conditions such as asthma, lower respiratory tract infection, cot death and lung cancer, while it also increases our risk of heart attack and stroke.
As part of my studies at the University of Aberdeen, I’ve recently been looking at the scientific evidence on smoke drift between homes and reviewing how much is known about the issue. There is a lot of evidence that non-smokers who live in multi-unit housing, such as tenements, can be exposed to SHS from their smoking neighbours in adjacent properties.
My review identified 12 studies that looked at SHS ingress or smoke drift from smoking to non-smoking homes. All the studies took place in the USA apart from one, in Spain. They all confirmed that SHS can transfer between homes and showed that SHS is often detectable in non-smoking homes where the next-door neighbours are smokers.
One piece of research showed that children living in smoke-free flats had levels of cotinine (a marker of how much SHS is breathed in) in their blood 45% higher than similar young people living in smoke-free detached homes.
Studies have compared buildings with policies that allow smoking to those with smoke-free regulations. They showed higher SHS levels in smoke-free homes in housing where smoking was permitted. Research has also indicated that SHS levels can be higher in the winter than the summer.
Surprisingly, residents reporting that they had smelled tobacco smoke in the hallways and their homes frequently had lower cotinine levels than other non-smoking residents. This may indicate some people are particularly sensitive to SHS exposure. Perhaps those who are not exposed to SHS in any other settings become more aware of the smell even at low levels.
Finally, one piece of research confirmed that certain methods of limiting exposure to SHS – for example, air sealing or ventilation treatments – are not entirely effective in preventing the transfer of tobacco smoke between homes. From that we realise that SHS exposure can be reduced but not eliminated by modifying our homes.
My conclusion is that all the studies published in the past decade have indicated that SHS can transfer between houses within the same building. They have also suggested that smoke-free policies are the most effective way to ensure that residents are not exposed to SHS.
But what we can do about this? Currently there are no legal restrictions on smoking at home. It seems that the best approach is to increase awareness of the issue of smoke drift and to make residents aware that their smoking can enter their neighbours’ home.
If you notice any SHS in your house, the first step is probably to try to talk to your neighbours about your concerns. Allow them to understand what a serious problem smoke drift can be.
If the problem can’t be resolved in this way, then it may be worthwhile discussing with your local council’s Environmental Health Officer and considering making a formal complaint about the odour from SHS.
SHS exposure is a serious health concern. A great deal of work has taken place to reduce exposure in the workplace and it is important that similar efforts are now undertaken to make homes smoke free for all.