March 18, 2022


Smoking and air pollution: what are the risks?

Tobacco smoke is harmful to those who breathe it, whether through active or passive smoking. What is less well known is this smoke doesn't disappear like magic.

Tobacco smoke is a real factor of indoor air pollution: its components can remain in the rooms for a very long time! A study has shown that a non-smoker living with a smoker breathes in as many harmful small particles at home as a non-smoker living in a highly polluted city, such as Paris or New York!

What is tobacco smoke made up of?

Tobacco smoke is what is known as an aerosol, which is a mixture of 90% gas and 10% particles. According to the Academy of Medicine, cigarette smoke is one of the biggest pollutants found indoors, because it is full of harmful particles. To give you an idea, if you smoke 3 cigarettes, in 30 minutes you emit 10 times more harmful particles than an idling diesel engine.

Pollutants in tobacco smoke come from the high-temperature tobacco combustion. Particles in additives and paper such as (tar, nicotine, heavy metals, etc.) are found in the smoke emitted from the cigarette.

Active, passive and... ultra-passive smoking!

In recent years, there has been a major focus on the dangers of so-called third-hand smoke, or ultra-passive smoking. In concrete terms, it's air pollution linked to tobacco that lingers once the cigarette is finished. The particles contained in tobacco smoke remain suspended in the air for a while before settling on surfaces, floors and walls and becoming encrusted in textiles, such as carpets and curtains. They can then remain there for several months, even several years, in a closed space like a car.

Research is progressing and it's becoming more and more evident that third-hand smoke is a real danger. Despite this, it remains underestimated by many. Indeed, small particles of tobacco smoke also react with other compounds in the air and can sometimes form even more harmful compounds, which can linger for several months. Even worse, these small particles are resistant to ventilation and can still travel in the air once desturbed.

Keeping children out of the tobacco service industry.

The first and greatest victims of ultra-passive smoking are children. Because of their small size and walking habits (e.g., crawling on the floor), young children inhale particles from tobacco residue, and they are even more sensitive than adults to air pollution because of their faster breathing.

When they put their hands in their mouths, they often swallow them as well. For Professor Winickoff, a Harvard Medical School Pediatrician, a small child could inhale doses up to 20 times higher than an adult! Moreover, a recent American study reveals that more than 9 out of 10 children have nicotine residues on their hands, including children whose parents or relatives do not smoke.

This contamination is particularly harmful to those who spend the most time at home, whether they are young children or adults. Young children exposed to tobacco smoke residues suffer more from bronchitis, recurrent ear infections and asthma attacks. In adults, small particles are said to increase or worsen cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, as well as the cause of strokes.

Not entirely convinced yet? Wait for the rest!

Pollution that lingers where it is not expected

A team of researchers from Yale University sought to assess the problem of ultra-passive smoking in a non-smoking environment. The researchers placed a sampling device in the air vents of a movie theater for four days in Mainz, Germany, where smoking has been banned for 15 years.

The experiment measured the levels of 35 tobacco chemicals, including toxic compounds such as benzene and formaldehyde. This experiment showed that these levels increased with the presence of spectators, and this up to +200% during sessions reserved for adults! The researchers estimate that these rates would be equivalent to an exposure to passive smoking of one to ten cigarettes during one hour.

The authors of the study explain that everyone can potentially carry the components of this "third hand smoke" with them from one environment to another, and deposit them in a non-smoking area. These dangerous substances also evaporate slowly from clothing, with peaks observed when people are on the move, as they move into the room. These pollutants then remain in the room, even if it is unoccupied for several days, or even several years in the case of poor ventilation.

Also, the average concentration of small particles in 93 smoking homes studied was well above the World Health Organization's limits. The California Thirdhand Smoke Consortium even says that smoke pollutants can still be found in household dust and wallpaper that have not seen smoke in 20 years! Hotel cleaning staff are thus exposed to significant occupational risks. This is particularly the case when the smoking ban is not applied to an entire hotel. In fact, non-smoking rooms are still contaminated by smoke residues from smoking rooms.

What can you do to protect yourself?

Simple lifestyle rules can limit the harm of ultra-passive smoking.

Never smoking in your home remains one of the first measures to be taken. In a survey carried out by OpinionWay for our partner Demain Sera Non-Fumeur (Tomorrow Will Be Smoke-Free), around 36% of households with at least one smoker say they smoke indoors. For 71% of these households, this practice is daily. 58% of respondents (smokers and non-smokers) indicate that smoking in an outdoor area is the rule in their home. This is an excellent way to protect their loved ones, as long as it is not near a window or front door. On the other hand, 14% still smoke at the window and 6% under a VMC. Unfortunately, these practices are totally ineffective against third-hand smoke.

Finally, the car also remains a place where there are very high concentrated levels of pollution, since tobacco smoke microparticles fall on the seats, carpets and rugs in the passenger seat. As a reminder, smoking in a vehicle in the presence of a minor has been legally prohibited in France since 2016.

In any case, airing out your home is extremely important even if it does not completely remove the particles deposited on fabrics and floors. For homes contaminated by long-term smoking that has deposited many layers of toxic compounds over the years, it is advised to change everything: furniture, paint, flooring, and even the ventilation system!

In the end, there is only one way to protect yourself from the dangers of ultra-passive smoking: free yourself from cigarette addiction and promote smoking cessation for everyone! This is what we are doing together, with our partner Demain Sera Non-Fumeur and all our users!

This article was co-written with our partner Demain Sera Non-Fumeur (DNF) - Tomorrow Will Be Smoke-Free.

DNF is an association under Alsatian local law, recognised as being of public utility. Since 1973, it has been carrying out a dual mission of preventing smoking and protecting against tobacco smoke. DNF is a pioneer in this field and has never limited smoking to its health aspect. Indeed, for almost half a century, DNF has been addressing tobacco issues through human rights, environmental protection, social and territorial health inequalities and taxation.

Each year, the French Directorate General for Health entrusts it with three missions:

  • Strategic monitoring and monitoring of compliance with tobacco control provisions;

  • Information and awareness-raising for the general public and decision-makers;

  • Supporting the network of actors involved in tobacco control.

DNF is also present in the field, through eight regional associations with several hundred members. These associations are mainly involved in supporting victims of tobacco use.

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