Building Codes No Help In Stopping Secondhand Smoke

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SAN JOSE (CBS) – It’s the last frontier in the battle over secondhand smoke: residential buildings. A South Bay viewer who spent half a million dollars on her highrise condo said it reeks of stale cigarettes because of her neighbor.

Believe it or not, today’s building codes don’t prevent your neighbor’s smoke from seeping into your home. In one brand-new Bay Area condo, the smoke seepage seems to be extreme.

Yllka Masada can’t take it any more. She says her brand new condo is toxic because of her neighbor’s secondhand smoke. “I think not just my lungs but anybody’s lungs could not handle it,” she said.

Masada said it literally seeps out of the fixtures when her neighbor smokes. Air quality monitors set up by a Stanford researcher show smoke levels in her apartment are comparable to a casino. “That could be 5 or 6 or 10 times as high as a clean apartment,” said Stanford researcher Neil Klepeis.

The owners of the Axis building did not comment on Masada’s case, aside from saying their state of the art high rise was built to code, which was confirmed by San Jose planning officials. So how could so much smoke get through the walls?

“Anytime two things meet, there is a potential of a leak,” said Max Sherman, a world-renowned expert on indoor air quality.

His research team at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab uses what’s called a “blower door test” to find out how sealed a residential unit is, by pumping air in at different pressures. “We can figure out from the blower door whether there is this much open area equivalent or this much,” he said.

Those open areas can potentially allow cigarette smoke to seep through. “It can happen in a recessed lighting fixture, it can happen in plumbing penetrations, it can happen in electrical outlets,” said Sherman.

Sealing a unit is possible if the building is designed with air tightness in mind, and it can be done reasonably cheaply, said Sherman. But Sherman also pointed out it’s very expensive to do after it’s built.

Sealing is also not a guarantee against secondhand smoke exposure. A newly-released UC Berkeley study found it’s extremely difficult to stop secondhand smoke from seeping from one unit to another.

Axis property owners cut holes in Masada’s wall, moved her to a temporary unit and offered to investigate the problem. But Masada said she just wants out.

The problem is that if they move her to another unit, another smoker could move in next door. So the only answer is a smoke-free building. However, while unincorporated Santa Clara County has a smoke-free residential ordinance, the city of San Jose does not.

City officials would not speak to CBS 5 about the issue because they said an ordinance is not a consideration at this point in time.

If you have a problem with secondhand smoke seeping into your unit, call Breathe California at 1-877-3BREATHE. If you’re in Santa Clara County you can also call them locally at 408-999-0500.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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