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Get Rid of Cigarette Smoke Damage

Apr 22, 2008
As Cheryl Kenny pointed out in the Washington Post last year, when it comes to embedded tobacco smoke, it's not easy being clean. She reports on a Virginia couple who took a year to get the stink out of a house they had purchased from chain smokers. "The couple stripped wallpaper and washed the plaster walls beneath it, then painted," Kenny wrote. "They scoured trim, windows, light fixtures. They scrubbed the mahogany front door, then sealed the wood with tung oil. "They replaced carpeting, the kitchen's linoleum floor and the dining room's hardwood."

They employed professional cleaners, "even having their metal window blinds cleaned and the nicotine-yellowed cords replaced. They hired a chimney sweep to clear cigarette odor from their fireplace. They even had their HVAC ductwork cleaned." Cleaning the ductwork was key, the couple said. The cleaners said it was the worst buildup of black gunk they had ever seen, all from tobacco smoke. Because smoke particles are so tiny (as little as .001% of the width of a human hair) and can get into any part of the house, the cleanup cost thousands of dollars and many person-hours of hard work.

Smoke particles that have been deposited on interior building surfaces over the years emit vapors, semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) which persist because they have very low vapor pressures. They quickly condense out of the vapor stage and rapidly condense. Because of this and their volatility, it allows them to move from one surface to another, drenching the entire house with a tobacco film and causing the odor to persist for years. So the next time Uncle Ned gets insulted when you forbid him from smoking in the house, ask him if he would like to pay you for the cost of the cleanup or whether he will cover the difference in what you'll get vs. what you could get when you sell the house.

That's the first step in clearing out tobacco stench: no more smoking in the house by anyone at any time. The rest:

1. Open all the windows and flood the place with fresh air. Do this as much as possible to sweep out what burnt tobacco particles you can.

2. Thoroughly clean all hard surfaces, preferably with a cleaner containing ammonia and glycol. Don't use this on woodwork, however; use a cleaner recommended for woodwork. Paint all walls and ceilings.

3. It is nearly impossible to remove smoke particles from carpeting, so get rid of it. Thoroughly scrub the flooring beneath before replacing the carpeting.

4. Soak Venetian blinds in a bathtub full of all-purpose cleaner, scrub them, and, if possible, hang them outside to dry.

5. Send curtains out to be professionally cleaned. Tell the cleaner you want the tobacco odors deodorized. Don't be surprised if they return to stinking within a few weeks. You may have to discard them.

6. Some claim that fabric cleaners like Fabreze can eliminate odors in upholstered furniture, but we suspect that they will not remove tobacco odors that have built up over the years. You may have to get them professionally cleaned, and even then, it may not work if the odor has gone deep into the stuffing. (It's never a good idea to purchase used upholstered furniture that stinks unless you plan on reupholstering it.)

7. There are special tools you can buy, such as a chemical sponge, which will remove nicotine film from lampshades and books.

8. Smoke that has leached into fiberglass insulation in walls, attics, or ductwork may have to be removed and replaced, a very expensive proposition. Non-insulated ducts will need to be cleaned out.

9. Once all that is done, you may have to neutralize whatever odor is left by taking every living thing out of the house and pumping ozone into it for three days.

If you would like to avoid all this, don't allow smoking in your house, and don't purchase a house from smokers. But what if you live in an apartment? More and more property management firms are prohibiting smoking in apartments, but there are still some that don't. Tobacco smoke can circulate through a building's ventilation system or come up through apartment floors. As the anti-smoking organization, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) points out, "If you can smell it, it could be killing you! And even if you can't smell it, many of these cancer-causing chemicals can never-the-less be entering your lungs." If an apartment neighbor's smoking is bothering you, take it up with the management. Ask them to make a reasonable accommodation, such as moving you to another apartment or even asking the smoker to leave (most property managers don't want the expense of fumigating an apartment where a smoker has lived).
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