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New Tool Measures Secondhand Smoke

You know exposure to secondhand smoke is unhealthy. What if you had a tool to help explain the risks to well intentioned, back-porch-smoking relatives and friends?

Focus article photo

Smaller and lighter than a cellphone, the secondhand smoke sensor uses polymer films to collect and measure nicotine in the air. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

Most people are aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke—the smoke that comes off a lit cigarette or is exhaled by a smoker. That's why many people won't smoke around children, or will step outside on the porch or exhale through an opened window in the bathroom to "sneak" a cigarette.

"I'm not even in the room—how can it be harmful?"

They mean well, but the health risks are there even when the visible smoke isn't. It can be difficult to convince a well-intentioned smoker, especially if they are a visiting friend or relative, that they are exposing you to second hand smoke. What if there was a tool that could help you show them that cigarettes smoked on the sly—even alone in the car—leave behind harmful chemicals? Researchers from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center and Dartmouth College have developed a tool that may soon help you do just that.

Smaller than a cell phone, real-time record of second hand smoke exposure

The multidisciplinary research team has invented a secondhand tobacco smoke sensor, smaller and lighter than a cellphone, that uses polymer films to collect and measure nicotine in the air. A chip records the data on a memory card, noting when and where the exposure occurred and even the number of cigarettes smoked.The sensor can also detect thirdhand smoke, or nicotine off-gassing from clothing, furniture, car seats, and other material.

Prouty funds launched research that led to invention

Susanne E. Tanski, Norris Cotton Cancer Center researcher and Dartmouth-Hitchcock pediatrician

In 2008 Norris Cotton Cancer Center researcher and Dartmouth-Hitchcock pediatrician Susanne E. Tanski received a $50,000 Prouty pilot grant to support preliminary research for the secondhand smoke exposure sensor. Prouty grants give early support to researchers with creative ideas, allowing them to obtain the preliminary data needed to compete for outside funding. Over a five year period a portion of Prouty donations—$1.2 million—were invested in small Prouty projects. Those investments returned over $20 million in larger federal grants.

The technology for the sensor prototype, described in a study that recently appeared in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, received additional funding from the American Academy of Pediatrics Julius B. Richmond Center of Excellence, funded through the Flight Attendants Medical Research Institute.

Tanski will be doing pilot work with the prototype this summer, testing it on nonsmokers to document where and when they are exposed, and the researchers plan to convert the prototype into a wearable, affordable, and reusable device to measure secondhand smoke. It will be more accurate and less expensive than current secondhand smoke sensors, which provide only an average exposure in a limited area over several days or weeks.

No amount of exposure is safe, so measuring secondhand smoke can help

The reason porch or bathroom smoking doesn't work is because separating smokers and nonsmokers within the same space doesn't eliminate risk, Tanski explained at a recent NCCC Grand Rounds presentation, Eliminating Exposure to Secondhand Smoke. You can't safely smoke in another section of the house, just as you can't have a 'no peeing' section of a swimming pool. Chemicals from cigarette smoke permeate surrounding air and surfaces, increasing the risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and childhood illness for all exposed to it. The 2006 U.S. Surgeon General's Report found that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

Secondhand smoke sensors developed from the Dartmouth prototype could be used to enforce public smoking bans in rental cars, hotel rooms, apartment buildings, and restaurants. And having documented exposure information for a specific situation (like the family room right down the hall from the opened window) could really help with those awkward "no smoking" conversations with family and friends.

Dartmouth College has a patent pending for this technology. The study was supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics Julius B. Richmond Center of Excellence, funded through the Flight Attendants Medical Research Institute, and by a Prouty pilot grant the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.

April 22, 2013