California High School Student Finds School Bathrooms are Polluted with Thirdhand Smoke Residue

Rosalia Park, a high school student from Los Angeles, California, recognized a problem with smoking and vaping in her school’s bathrooms. Working with the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center, she designed an experiment to test her school bathrooms for thirdhand smoke residue. Upon completion of her experiment, she went on to win numerous accolades at regional, state, and national science competitions.

August 26, 2022

By Avery Crosley

Laboratory work at the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center

Rosalia Park, an incoming senior at Crescenta Valley High School in Los Angeles, California, noticed a problem with smoking and vaping in her bathrooms. Teaming with the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center, Rosa and her administrators decided to test her high school bathrooms for thirdhand smoke residue.

In a discussion with Rosa about her experiment, she explained that she had noticed a lot of students who smoke or vape, especially in the bathrooms. She knew that this behavior of her classmates could expose other students to the toxic pollutants in secondhand and thirdhand smoke. To determine the extent of the problem, she decided to turn this into a science project to measure the amount of nicotine remaining on bathroom surfaces. Since Crescenta Valley High School had an anonymous forum to report students who smoke or vape in the bathrooms, Rosa thought her school might be receptive to her idea. Rosa created a presentation and explained her ideas to her assistant principal Miguel Gonzalez. The teachers at Rosa’s school supported her idea and were willing to help.

The Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center sent Rosa surface wipe sampling kits to test the nicotine levels in the bathrooms. With the help of a school administrator, Rosa began her experiment. Using wet cotton rounds, she collected samples from 10 bathrooms. To collect samples from surfaces, she wiped a 10cm-by 10cm area on one bathroom stall door in each bathroom. Additionally, Rosa hung silicone wristbands under one sink in each bathroom for seven days to test for nicotine that settled on the silicone from the air. Once Rosa collected the surface wipe samples and silicone wristbands, she sent them back to the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center for testing and analysis.

Laboratory results from the surface wipes showed significant amounts of nicotine in 6 out of 10 bathrooms sampled (ranging from 38 to 258mg/m2). These levels are similar to those found in homes where people actively smoke inside. Three of the six had levels over 200mg/m2; which is a nicotine level typically seen in a casino where smoking is allowed.  Before Rosa collected her data, she completed a review of how often each bathroom was used by students. She discovered the bathrooms that tested highest for nicotine were also the most popular bathrooms based on building use and floor location. Rosa believes that the four bathrooms that tested low for thirdhand smoke are due to the lack of student use in those locations.

After sending the silicone wristbands to the laboratory, Rosa found that two wristband nicotine measurements were at elevated levels of 97 ng/wristband and 23.5 ng/wristband respectively. These results are above the levels typically observed in homes of nonsmokers with strict home smoking bans. The elevated levels of nicotine on the wristbands happened to correspond with two bathrooms with the highest levels of surface nicotine too—both bathrooms (one for male students and one for female students) are in the same building.

Rosa began entering science contests to present her study and receive feedback on the project. The first competition she entered was her school’s science fair. She then entered her project into the SkillsUSA competition—an organization that supports career and technical education in the nation’s classrooms. Rosa not only won the regional competition, but she went on to take first place in the California state competition. In late June of 2022, Rosa went to Atlanta, Georgia, for the National SkillsUSA competition, where she entered the Career Pathway Showcase—Health Services competition. She was awarded second place at the national level for her project.

Rosa’s study showed that vaping in school bathrooms presents a hazard not only to the students who are vaping but to their classmates who share space with them. Vaping in school bathrooms leaves behind toxic thirdhand smoke residue. This study points to the need for student education about the risks of vaping not only to themselves but to the entire school community and effective strategies to reduce vaping in schools, including support for students who want to quit vaping.

While reflecting on her project with members of the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center, Rosa shared that she thought if she completed this project at her school, the community impact could echo around the country. Rosa wants her experiment to inspire others and be a steppingstone for other high school projects in the future.

Rosa is currently volunteering at The Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center where she is gaining experience on several projects examining the impact of tobacco use on the environment. After her upcoming final year in high school, Rosa hopes to continue her studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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