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Dartmouth device measures secondhand smoke

Union Leader Correspondent

March 31. 2013 3:25PM
Dartmouth College researchers have invented a secondhand tobacco smoke sensor that for the first time captures a real time measure of exposure to secondhand smoke. (COURTESY)

HANOVER - Dartmouth College researchers have invented a secondhand tobacco smoke sensor that for the first time captures a real time measure of exposure to secondhand smoke.

It's a cold winter night and instead of walking down to the edge of the driveway, a parent steps just outside their front door to light up a cigarette. The smoker thinks they are protecting the non-smokers in the house, said Dartmouth Chemistry Professor Joseph BelBruno, who helped design the new device with Dartmouth scientists and doctors.

A generation ago the smoking would have taken place indoors, but people today are well aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke, so smokers, especially around children, take their smoking outside or into another room to protect nonsmokers.

But according to federal health officials, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, which increases the risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease and childhood illness. An estimated 88 million nonsmoking Americans, including 54 percent of children ages 3 to 11, are exposed to secondhand smoke.

BelBruno said the researchers are ready to start testing the device out in the field.

The device is smaller and lighter than a cellphone and can either be worn by an adult or older child or placed in a child's room or near a crib, BelBruno said.

Affordable and reusable polymer films detect the secondhand cigarette smoke by measuring the ambient nicotine vapor, and a sensor chip records the real-time data, pinpointing when and where the exposure occurred and even the number of cigarettes smoked.

"So we can correlate what time the nicotine was in the room," BelBruno said.

The device can detect residual smoke left in a room or that wafts into a home as a smoker stands just outside. It can even detect thirdhand smoke from clothing, furniture, car seats and other material.

BelBruno said the device should help enforce no smoking regulations, such as smoking bans in rental cars, hotel rooms, apartment buildings and restaurants.

The device could also help to convince smokers that their efforts to protect nonsmokers, such as smoking in other rooms, out of windows or using air fresheners, still expose children and other nonsmokers to secondhand smoke.

This device is 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, the researchers said.

Smoking parents will be part of a study to start this summer, BelBruno said.

The device would be "left in a child's room, and parents would be asked to keep a journal," BelBruno said. Using the parent's journal, the results of the device would be correlated to where the smoking is taking place.

"The hope is that we'll be able to get it out fairly broadly so there will be a lot of data available," he said.

BelBruno and the other researchers are hoping to shed light on the pervasiveness of secondhand smoke.

"If you are going to smoke you need to do it in a place where there is no smoke infiltration into the house," BelBruno said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, The Flights Attendants Medical Research Institute and the Norris Cotton Cancer Center are funding the project.

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