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Why does my new house smell like a cigarette?

Photo by Lyyfe Williams on Unsplash

You may have never smoked in your life but the smell of smoke can remain for up to 20 years after the smoking has ended. Your home's prior owner or tenant might've never smoked either and still, prior residents twenty years before you might be the ones to blame. So why does this happen? And is it possible to remove?

A simple way to define Thirdhand smoke (THS) is with the process of the 4 Rs:

Tobacco chemicals that...

1. Remain

2. React

3. Re-emit

4. Resuspend

Thirdhand smoke (THS) is the contamination that persists after secondhand tobacco smoke (SHS) has been emitted into the air. It refers to the tobacco-related gases and particles that become embedded in materials, such as the carpet, walls, furniture, blankets, and toys; often penetrating deep into materials such as wallboard or upholstery. THS is not strictly smoke, but chemical compounds that adhere to surfaces, settle onto surfaces and dust from which they can be released back into the air, undergo chemical transformations, and/or accumulate into indoor air long after smoking ends.

Unexpected Adverse Health Effects

Indoor occupants can be exposed to THS through different pathways: inhalation, dermal uptake, and (particularly in the case of infants and toddlers) the mouthing of contaminated objects. Exposure to THS can account for 5−60% of the total harm caused by exposure to tobacco-related pollutants in SHS and THS indoors, which is estimated to be 0.7−1.1 life-years over 50 years of living with a smoker who consumes 28 cigarettes per day.

How To Eliminate The Smoke Smell

There are several treatments that claim success in removing cigarette smell from indoor spaces, like Biocides, Chemical odor-removal spraying, Vapor, Paints, Sealers, Vinegar, and others. Ozonation is a common remediation approach to eliminate odors from mold, tobacco, fire damage, and many other odors for many years, but until recently, little information existed to assess its effectiveness on THS remediation. In a study revised in October 2020 and published by Elsevier, after polyester fabrics were exposed to tobacco smoke, surface PAH concentrations increased by one order of magnitude to 0.6─22 μg per gram of fabric. Subsequent addition of ozone educed the PAH levels on the fabrics by roughly one order of magnitude, achieving surface levels that were similar to, or lower than those prior to cigarette smoke exposure. Hence, ozonation had a positive effect in terms of removing harmful THS species from exposed surfaces.

Smoking-generated nicotine and PAHs that adsorbed onto polyester fabrics were effectively eliminated from the surfaces by the ozonation process, reducing their concentration to background levels. This result suggests that ozonation may not only be effective in removing unpleasant odors but can also mitigate exposures to harmful chemicals adsorbed on indoor surfaces. However, further investigation of potential ozonation byproducts formed in these reactions is needed.


Chem Res Toxicol. 2017 January 17; 30(1): 270–294. doi:10.1021/acs.chemrestox.6b00344