How a Potential Homeowner Uncovered the Truth and Avoided Thirdhand Smoke

Julie Gilmore, who is using a pseudonym because she is currently involved in a proceeding with a realty board, and her partner were looking for their “forever home.”

“We just don’t like moving, and we just wanted to buy it and be done with it until our old days,” she said.

Eventually, the couple found a home they loved in the province of Québec, Canada. Gilmore is immunocompromised, so when they initially visited this home, they wore masks because of concerns about COVID. They did not notice any odors, and their realtor, who was not wearing a mask, assured them that she did not notice any odor either. They visited the home a few more times, and at one of the visits, Gilmore’s partner gave the home a “smell-check” to confirm that they did not smell anything weird, Gilmore shared.

The couple decided to move forward with the home purchase and began the next steps, which included a professional home inspection, disclosures about the home’s history, and negotiations. During the home inspection, the inspector noticed that the smoke detectors were yellowed, suggesting they were expired.

“We said ‘Oh okay, no problem. We’ll just ask [the current homeowner] to change those,’” Gilmore said. “We didn’t think anything of it.”

Later, Gilmore was flipping through the 100-page report of the home. She noticed that lots of things were yellowed in the report’s pictures. It struck her as odd. She shared that she thought at the time that it might be from someone smoking in the home, but that did not make sense since there was no smell of smoke on multiple visits.

“In my head, when you go somewhere where there are smokers, you just smell it right off the bat,” Gilmore said. Because she had not smelled any smoke in the home, she thought maybe the yellowing was simply sun damage. She realized, though, that some smoke detectors were yellowed in rooms without windows – so the sun couldn’t have yellowed them.

Concerned, Gilmore asked her realtor to request a written statement from the sellers confirming whether or not anyone had ever smoked in the home. The homeowner supplied a statement that said his ex-wife used to smoke in the garage – but only the garage – and that she had moved out 8 years ago.

Gilmore searched online in research journals on how tobacco smoke can affect homes. She learned about thirdhand smoke, the toxic residue left behind on surfaces and in dust after someone smokes, and read that it can last for years after someone smokes. Unfortunately, by this point she and her partner had already signed the contract on the home.

“I was like ‘Oh crap, what did I get myself into?’” Gilmore said, who is in remission from lung lymphoma. “Lungs are so important; air quality is so important to me. I could not believe I didn’t think about it earlier.”

She reached out to the author of one of these research papers, Dr. Thomas Northrup, who recommended that she contact the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center. The Center provided advice on how to best remediate the toxic residue in the home since Gilmore and her partner were too far into buying the house to back out. The Center offered to supply them with a test kit to measure the nicotine levels in the home after they moved in.

“We felt more empowered,” Gilmore said. “We knew exactly what we would do if we were stuck in this home.”

One day, Gilmore went over to the home and was able to chat one-on-one with the seller. In this conversation, Gilmore found out that the seller vaped in the home and smoked cigars in the garage. He was even vaping during their chat, Gilmore shared. She also noticed that the garage was so full of wood and building materials that no one could comfortably fit in it, making her skeptical that he was really smoking in the garage instead of the rest of the home.

The seller seemed to have misrepresented the tobacco use history in the home. This – along with a missing document from the realtor – was enough for Gilmore to get out of the contract, she told us.

Since then, the homeowner has sold the home to someone else. Gilmore and her partner took a break from house hunting and are staying at their apartment. Both parties agreed to not sue, Gilmore said, but she did file a complaint with the realty board to try to protect others from similar situations of being misinformed.

“If there’s something that was not done properly, I hope they don’t re-do that to other people,” Gilmore said.

This process opened Gilmore’s eyes to the dangers of thirdhand smoke, she said. Many of her friends only consider the smell of thirdhand smoke but do not know about the longer effects and health consequences. By knowing more, Gilmore said, she is willing to take extra steps to avoid smoke from entering her apartment and, eventually, her future home.

“You’re more aware that you should tell your guests ‘No, you cannot smoke even in the garage,’ or tell them to go smoke very far outside,” Gilmore said. “You don’t feel bad about it because you know why you’re doing this. You know there’s a scientific basis for doing this.”

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