Two Center for Tobacco and the Environment Interns Win at S3

On Saturday, March 2, two Center for Tobacco and the Environment interns won Undergraduate Research Excellence Awards for their presentations at the SDSU Student Symposium, a public event for any San Diego State University student to present their faculty-mentored research. Oscar Lopez and Maria Christina Huerta-Avila shared their tobacco-related research projects at the poster presentation on the first day of the symposium.

The Center for Tobacco and the Environment is a group of researchers at San Diego State University from a variety of disciplines, including public health and psychology. The center studies how commercial tobacco impacts both indoor and outdoor environments. Fittingly, one intern presented research about polluted indoor environments, and the other presented research on polluted outdoor environments.

a man and woman stand holding a leather award folder

Oscar Lopez, a first-year transfer student studying computing science and a member of NextGen Smoke and Vape-free Latinx Scholar Program, presented research on thirdhand smoke in homes. Nicolas Lopez-Galvez, PhD, an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Health at SDSU and a member of the Center for Tobacco and the Environment, mentored him.

“Thirdhand smoke is the toxic residue from tobacco smoke,” Lopez said, explaining that it lasts long periods of time in homes. When someone smokes, the secondhand smoke they produce transforms into thirdhand smoke that can stick to and absorb into surfaces in homes, such as furniture and walls.

Lopez visited the homes of people who smoked to measure how much nicotine, a common chemical in thirdhand smoke, was in the homes. He measured this by wiping surfaces in the homes with ascorbic acid. If the homes had high levels of nicotine, he and the research team would buy the homeowners’ furniture, take it to their outdoor research space, and cut out square samples, such as from a couch cushion. He separated the furniture samples into layers, sent them to the Environmental Chemistry Laboratory, and analyzed the results when the lab returned them.

“The top layers had the most nicotine,” Lopez said. The deeper the layer in the furniture sample, the less nicotine it held. At the same time, though, some nicotine was embedded even in the deepest layers, so banning all smoking in your home is best for avoiding thirdhand smoke. In addition, Lopez said, many homes had higher levels of nicotine on often-forgotten surfaces, such as under tables.

Children and elderly residents are more at risk to health impacts from thirdhand smoke exposure, Lopez said. He added wants people who smoke to “[know] about the risks of their actions.”


two women stand holding a leather award folder

Maria Christina Huerta-Avila, a junior studying psychology with a minor in cultural proficiency and a NextGen Scholar, presented research on how different policies impact tobacco, electronic cigarette, and cannabis (TEC) waste. Georg Matt, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology at SDSU and co-director of the Center for Tobacco and the Environment, mentored her.

Huerta-Avila collected TEC waste at two adjacent buildings that share a parking lot. One of the buildings, its surrounding landscaping, and half of the parking lot are smokefree, while the other building and surrounding areas allow smoking.

“We surveyed the blacktop, landscaped areas, and sidewalks,” Huerta-Avila said. In the areas with a smokefree policy, the blacktop and sidewalks had more TEC waste. In areas that allowed smoking, the landscaping around the building had more TEC waste, she said.

The smokefree areas had 131 TEC waste items. The smoking areas had 199 items, even though there were ashtrays nearby. The vast majority of these items were cigarette butts.

“We found the ashtrays to be ineffective,” Huerta-Avila said. “We could see ashtrays, and cigarette butts were right next to them [on the ground].” In the smokefree areas, nonsmoking signs seemed to help prevent people from smoking right in front of the building, she said. The signs seemed to drive people to go out to the sidewalks to smoke rather than stay on the landscaping.

These data suggest that people need to be informed about TEC waste and how it impacts the environment and others. That way, people may think twice before littering cigarette butts, Huerta-Avila said.

Contrary to popular belief, the filters in cigarette butts are not biodegradable. They are made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic, that slowly breaks down into microplastics. Filters are also full of toxic chemicals, which are released into the environment as the filters degrade. “It hurts everyone and every part of the environment,” Huerta-Avila said. “It pollutes water, leaches chemicals into the ground, and it affects our health.”

Including undergraduate students in research is important to teach the next generation of tobacco prevention researchers. Research like Lopez’s and Huerta-Avila’s are necessary now and will continue to be in the future to inform and protect the public about the dangers of tobacco smoke indoors and outdoors. By sharing this information, people can take steps to create smokefree, healthy communities.

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