Remediating Thirdhand Smoke Pollution in Multiunit Housing: Temporary Reductions and the Challenges of Persistent Reservoirs

Nicotine Tob Res. 2021 Jan 22;23(2):364-372. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntaa151.


Introduction: Toxic tobacco smoke residue, also known as thirdhand smoke (THS), can persist in indoor environments long after tobacco has been smoked. This study examined the effects of different cleaning methods on nicotine in dust and on surfaces.

Aims and methods: Participants had strict indoor home smoking bans and were randomly assigned to: dry/damp cleaning followed by wet cleaning 1 month later (N = 10), wet cleaning followed by dry/damp cleaning (N = 10) 1 month later, and dry/damp and wet cleaning applied the same day (N = 28). Nicotine on surfaces and in dust served as markers of THS and were measured before, immediately after, and 3 months after the cleaning, using liquid chromatography with triple quadrupole mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS).

Results: Over a 4-month period prior to cleaning, surface nicotine levels remained unchanged (GeoMean change: -11% to +8%; repeated measures r = .94; p < .001). Used separately, dry/damp and wet cleaning methods showed limited benefits. When applied in combination, however, we observed significantly reduced nicotine on surfaces and in dust. Compared with baseline, GeoMean surface nicotine was 43% lower immediately after (z = -3.73, p < .001) and 53% lower 3 months later (z = -3.96, p < .001). GeoMean dust nicotine loading declined by 60% immediately after (z = -3.55, p < .001) and then increased 3 months later to precleaning levels (z = -1.18, p = .237).

Conclusions: Cleaning interventions reduced but did not permanently remove nicotine in dust and on surfaces. Cleaning efforts for THS need to address persistent pollutant reservoirs and replenishment of reservoirs from new tobacco smoke intrusion. THS contamination in low-income homes may contribute to health disparities, particularly in children.

Implications: Administered sequentially or simultaneously, the tested cleaning protocols reduced nicotine on surfaces by ~50% immediately after and 3 months after the cleaning. Nicotine dust loading was reduced by ~60% immediately after cleaning, but it then rebounded to precleaning levels 3 months later. Cleaning protocols were unable to completely remove THS, and pollutants in dust were replenished from remaining pollutant reservoirs or new secondhand smoke intrusion. To achieve better outcomes, cleaning protocols should be systematically repeated to remove newly accumulated pollutants. New secondhand smoke intrusions need to be prevented, and remaining THS reservoirs should be identified, cleaned, or removed to prevent pollutants from these reservoirs to accumulate in dust and on surfaces.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Air Pollution, Indoor / analysis*
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Dust / analysis*
  • Female
  • Housing*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nicotiana
  • Nicotine / analysis*
  • Random Allocation
  • Smoke / analysis
  • Smoke-Free Policy / trends*
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / analysis*
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / prevention & control*


  • Biomarkers
  • Dust
  • Smoke
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution
  • Nicotine