It wasn’t too long ago that people were smoking everywhere—inside restaurants, bars, malls and more. However, with stricter smoking bans now in place, we see fewer people lighting up in public, which is a good thing … Bystanders don’t want to get exposed to second-hand smoke.

One of the last few refuges for the smoker is the car. However, research suggests that smoking in the closed environment of a car seriously pollutes the interior with nicotine and other smoke pollutants. Such nicotine pollution constitutes third-hand exposure.

In a 2010 article titled “Residual Tobacco Smoke in Used Cars: Futile Efforts and Persistent Pollutants,” researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and San Diego State University examined total smoke pollution in used cars whose previous owners were either smokers or nonsmokers.

Rommel Canlas © 123RF.com
Source: Rommel Canlas © 123RF.com

Specifically, surface wipe, air and dust samples were analyzed for nicotine. Furthermore, previous owners were interviewed about smoking behaviors, including variables such as number of cigarettes smoked per day both inside and outside the car as well as use of ventilation, such as rolling down the windows or turning on the air conditioner.

Findings from the study include the following:

  • Smokers reported using air conditioning less than nonsmokers did.  
  • Smokers reported rolling the windows down more frequently than did nonsmokers.
  • Cleaning has little or no effect on the levels of total smoke pollution inside the vehicle. In other words, smoke still sticks, or adsorbs, to surfaces of the car no matter how much a person cleans.
  • Ventilation efforts, like using the air conditioner or holding a cigarette close to or outside a rolled-down window, have little or no effect on total smoke pollution levels inside a vehicle.
  • The biggest predictor of total smoke pollution in the car is the number of cigarettes smoked by the driver.
  • Smokers had more ash and burn marks on the interior of their cars as well as filthier ashtrays (no surprise here).

Although third-hand smoke exposure that arises from merely traveling in a car isn’t as bad as somebody actively smoking in the car, or second-hand exposure, it still constitutes a risk--especially for children.

Specifically, when a person sits in a car that’s been smoked in, nicotine and other smoke pollutants covering the interior (dashboard, upholstery and dust) are released into the air. Furthermore, these pollutants also get on the skin and in the mouth (imagine putting your fingers in your mouth after touching the upholstery). Because the average American spends more than an hour a day driving in a car, exposure to pollutants covering car surfaces adds up. Moreover, total smoke pollution can linger in a car’s interior for days, weeks or even months.

So what can we do about total smoke pollution in cars? First, people who smoke should avoid doing so in the car. (In 2006, only 33 percent of Californians selling their used cars reported banning smoking in the car.) Second, the researchers suggest that used car dealers disclose whether the previous owner smoked in the car as well as certifying certain cars as smoke-free.

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