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ask joanne

My husband and I have two growing boys who will be tall (my husband is 6-foot-5) and we are expanding our family, therefore we really want a minivan. Here's our dilemma: my father has a Mazda MVP 2003 with 110,000 km. He's the original owner. Knowing our new interest in a minivan, he's offered it to us at a steal of a price. Our problem lies in that my mother has smoked in this vehicle all these years and my husband and I have asthma/allergies. Moreover, since we will be carrying around a newborn, we are concerned that residual smoke or even the smell could be hazardous. Are there ways for us to get the smoke residue and smell out of the upholstery or should we bite the bullet and purchase a different minivan? – Marie-Claude in Orleans, Ont.

While a clean ashtray is often a selling feature, it comes as no surprise that vehicles that have been smoked in typically have lower resale values because, let's face it, they stink.

So, can you rid an ash-mobile of its residue and scent? Can it be refreshed and comfortably driven by a non-smoker?

The experienced auto detailers I contacted say that getting rid of tobacco odour is a tough, if not impossible, task. One detailer said he would never purchase a vehicle that had been smoked in.

"It's difficult to gauge what the end result will be. It depends how long it was smoked in, and whether the windows were sealed. Ozone-treatment odour eliminator is only meant to work on organic compounds, but we've had some limited success with it. Ideally you'd want to pull the seats out, and every surface needs to be shampooed. If it was smoked in with the windows closed, residue will be in the headliner and there's not much you can do about that, because cleaning a headliner usually destroys it," says one B.C. auto detailer.

Because the vehicle offered to you has been smoked in for almost a decade, there's more than just the unpleasant smell to consider. Much is known about the health effects of first- and second-hand smoke, but the study of third-hand smoke (the toxic residue that remains after a cigarette has been extinguished) is a relatively new area of science.

Have you ever caught a whiff of smoke on someone's clothing or hair, tasted it in food, or visited a smoker's home on moving day? The walls are yellow, and the areas where paintings or pictures have been removed are white.

"Similarly in automobiles, the entire surface gets coated with a sticky goo, which contains all kinds of toxic compounds. Most of the toxic carcinogens of second-hand smoke are deposited on every surface and in the fabrics of automobiles and other areas where cigarettes are smoked, and then can be off-gassed over the period of days, weeks, months, even years," says Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children.

"Our research is leading us toward a real area under the curve, where the toxins remain, and never actually get back to zero in a given indoor or in-car location where a cigarette is smoked. So the area in a sense becomes contaminated more permanently than what people have recognized in the past," says Dr. Winickoff.

Dr. Wickinoff says that in addition to volatile compounds that off-gas into the atmosphere where cigarettes have been smoked, toxins are trapped in the dust.

"Children, because of the way they interact with their environment and put their hands in their mouths, actually ingest twice the amount of dust as adults. In our research, we've been able to measure some of these compounds getting into children," says Dr. Winickoff, who is also an investigator with the MGH Center for Child and Adolescent Health Policy, and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

When it comes to riding in an automobile, drivers and passengers are already exposed to tailpipe emissions, and off-gassing from plastic and other interior materials. In this environment, is third-hand smoke really a concern?

"The U.S. Surgeon General has said that there is no safe level of tobacco smoke exposure. Just because a car engine itself has toxins, or there are other compounds inside the vehicle, doesn't mean you should intentionally expose your children to known, and avoidable, additional toxins. There are 7,000 known compounds in second-hand smoke, and many of them are deposited as third-hand smoke. There are heavy metals, and at least 11 class-one carcinogens in secondhand smoke, which are the highest carcinogenicity known," says Dr. Winickoff.

"Tobacco smoke is a really bad factor, and we've known this for decades. The key to framing the third-hand smoke health effects is realizing that a lot of the same compounds that are in second-hand smoke are in third-hand smoke. It would not be ethical to do a study where we subjected children to the toxic compounds in smoke residue, so we need to rely on common sense, which is: don't expose children to these known carcinogenic compounds," says Dr. Winickoff.

There are potential toxins in the vehicle, built up over years, which can't be removed easily, if at all. I wouldn't take any chances with your precious cargo. Rather than purchase a minivan that spent a decade as a mobile smoking lounge, look for one with a clean history.

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