Second-hand smoke

Everyone in my stairwell smokes. Well, everyone but me and my partner, who happen to live on the top floor. Meaning that with each exhale of the people downstairs, a convoy of smoke somehow finds a way in to our flat, no matter what I do to prevent it.

I didn’t notice the problem until after a few weeks of moving in 12 months ago. I was sitting in my office, well away from the front door, when I got a whiff of fags. I expected to find someone outside the door with a cigarette in their hand, or at least a strong smell that had been lingering in the air for a while. But the air smelt perfectly fresh and clean and there was no one there.

This went on for weeks. Slowly I started to discover hotspots in the apartment, particularly in the kitchen and in the cupboard under the sink. The smell in there always seemed stale and often fresh, as if it was perhaps the main access point for the smoke. Admittedly I started to get paranoid. I didn’t really know the neighbours well enough to say anything, yet I was confident that the guy who lived next to us was a regular smoker – we saw him often leaning out of his kitchen window with a cigarette in hand. He also worked a lot from home, and as our kitchens were technically touching, I decided that this was where the smoke was coming from.

Before I continue, I had better state clearly that this is not a dig at smokers, so stick with me here.

Anyway, after weeks and weeks of cooking in a smelly kitchen, switching on extractor-fans and closing doors tightly behind me, I plucked up the courage to go and speak with him. I simply asked if he thought that our kitchens might be connected in anyway via pipes etc. I told him what was happening and how I was doing my best to prevent the smell from coming in. He agreed that it must be an unpleasant experience and was sorry to hear it, but he always smoked his cigarettes whilst leaning out the window. It did get a bit better after that, however, so I hoped that our little conversation had had some effect.

But by summer it had returned with a vengeance and so had my paranoia. With bedroom windows being left open at night, I started to smell smoke as I was drifting off to sleep. Now the smoke was coming from the lovely old lady who was sitting on her back porch, enjoying her evening outside. Really can’t blame anyone for wanting to do that. But now the smell was getting in to the bathroom, and when I decided to lie down on the kitchen floor to look for cracks, that’s when I noticed just how strong the smell was down there.

It was around this time that I ‘caught’ the woman who lives directly below me with a cigarette in her mouth whilst going up and down the stairs. And this is where I draw the line. You can do whatever you want in the privacy of your own home, but to me it’s not acceptable to smoke in a private stairwell shared by others. When I raised this with the landlord he reminded me that walking down the street was more harmful than a few hours a day of second-hand smoke. He also said that it was perfectly fine to smoke on the stairs. “So it’s OK for me to walk around naked on the stairs, too?” I asked. “I’ll have a word,” he replied.

But the problem still remained. As mentioned before, what people do in their own homes is up to them and has nothing to do with me. But I find it odd that there is no law that states a landlord or housing company has an obligation to improve the insulation between apartments. My problem was the gaps, cracks and holes in the walls and floors of our 1930s apartment block.

When I started telling people about it, I heard similar stories. People who couldn’t escape the smell day after day, so eventually had to move out. Having only just bought our Andel, neither of us wanted to do that, and with our baby on the way it soon became a priority for me. I concluded that the smell must be coming from the couple directly below me. I had never seen her WITHOUT a cigarette, and each time she opened her door a very strong smell smacked you in the face. One evening an ambulance came and took her away and she spent several nights in hospital. I asked if she was OK when she returned and she told me she’d had breathing difficulties and had no idea why. Maybe it’s because you smoke 90 a day, love.

This strange comment led me to investigate the smoking statistics in Denmark. According to , Denmark used to be one of the worst countries in Europe for cigarette consumption. And although the trend is changing for the better, one in four still lights up regularly. It goes on to say that the majority are ‘middle-aged and have the shortest education (less than 10 years worth).’

But even when cycling around the city, it’s not uncommon to see young, attractive girls (I rarely see young men smoking anymore) puffing away, and I think ‘why?’ I understand that smoking is addictive and hard to give up, but it seems to me that it’s also a fashion statement to some. Hard to believe in 2014.

Back at the flat, I’d managed to use an old pizza box and some tape to seal up the gaps between the wall and the floor in the hallway. I’ve used a similar method for the cupboard under the sink, and yet just this morning as I was about to wash the dishes I could smell cigarette smoke coming up through the drain pipe in the sink itself. Now that’s a new one.

I’d be very interested to hear your experiences on this subject. I’ve lived in many flats before moving to Denmark and have never experienced this before, yet it seems I’m not the only one. Is is something to do with the architecture of certain buildings from the 30s and 40s? I can’t imagine modern apartments having the same issues. Furthermore, let me know how you’ve solved it (if you have!)

20 Comments Add Yours

  1. Daniel

    Sorry to hear about your experience, but at least now I know I’m not paranoid either… there must be something with these Danish houses 🙂
    I moved in a new place half a year ago. It’s a nice apartment at ground floor so I don’t have any neighbors underneath my place to blame, but I think the ones next to me do smoke inside. And that I can feel in a small closet that shares the wall with them and that’s right after the main door.
    My problem is that even though I have tried to “seal” the edges in the closet with silicone sealant, the smell is still there and my jackets smell even worse than in the period I was smoking myself 🙂

  2. Matthew James Harrison

    Interesting comment, Daniel. I take it you are still having the same problem? It would be nice to know who to speak with on the subject. In California, so many complaints were made regarding neighbours’ smoke that a law was passed to legally protect those that were being affected.

  3. Daniel

    Yes indeed it’s the same problem… and I’m not quite sure how to handle it because they have every right to do whatever they want in their onw home.
    For me it’s not that critical as for you since you have a newborn and I am anyway most of the time at work, but it still is slightly annoying and they will probably not like to see a foreigner knocking at their door telling them to take it slow with their smoking 🙂

    But smoking in Denmark (and not only as) should be a concern, especialy when it comes to teenagers because I see they have absolutely no control on them and it is disturbing to see on Friday night all those 15 yo drunk girls, smoking cigarettes after cigarettes… I see that as a problem here, or maybe I am still unconsciously refusing to adapt 🙂

  4. Lars Nielsen

    Hi Matthew, I´m sad to hear your smokey story. I think you should contact your landlord, and tell him or her about the problem. I actually had the same problem when I lived in Frederiksberg. There were an old guy who lived next door and he smoked liked crazy, and I could really smell it big time in my apartment.
    – I called the landlord and he send someone to fix it (I actually don´t know what he did, but it helped)
    So try that. But also be aware that some landlord here in Denmark, really don´t care, so don´t be surprised if nothing happens from landlord 😉

    Good luck!

    • Matthew James Harrison

      Hi Lars, thanks for the advice. I did actually mention this to my landlord one afternoon and, to his credit, he went and had a word with all the smokers in the block. But of course, that wasn’t my concern. Like you said, I would like something to insulate against the smell, not dictate how others should live their lives. Nothing has been done since then, and the problem still comes and goes. My dad recommended some filler to squirt around the gaps in the kitchen, so maybe that will help. I promise to update right here if the problem gets solved ( or gets worse! )

  5. Mikkel Nielsen

    I have the same problem in my apartment. It is really annoying and I feel powerless. Hope somebody has a solution to this problem..

  6. Lene Rørbæk

    Great post, but sorry to hear your problem as well. Agree with Lars about your landlord. Best of luck!

    • Matthew James Harrison

      Thanks for the comments, Lene. There seems to be a fair bit of interest in this situation.

  7. Frank Eskelund

    I haven’t tried the same as you, on the contrary. I am old cigarette smoker and I was used to smoked inside. I didn’t knew I harassed my upstairs neighbor until she told me.
    One day she asked me nicely if I could smoke outdoor as it were harassing her.
    I apologized of course my smoking and then I only smoked outside.
    It must be said that this was many years ago and I do not smoke anymore.

    Try and ask her nicely if she can smoke out through the window or under the cooker hood, because it harasses you.

    Maybe she don’t know that it’s harasses you!

    • Matthew James Harrison

      Hi Frank, cheers for the advice. At the moment we’re going through a ‘good’ phase where there is no smoke affecting us. Though we have already spoken to our neighbour, who is aware of the smoke coming through in to our apartment. It seems that he is already doing everything he can to prevent this.

  8. Andrew

    I recently approached the housing association where I have an office about the stink of garbage that has been radiating up from the garbage depot below my office.

    Apparently all the trash is collected from the various trash-drops along the length of the building and kept below my office until the garbage truck comes by, which is usually twice a week. The smell of garbage has been wafting up for quite some time, and it took me a while to find out where the smell was coming from. Arriving early at work one morning I saw garbage men removing large amounts of trash from the room immediately below my office, I had my explanation.

    I went into the office and was told that if they fixed the problem by putting in ventilation, or whatever, then they would have to fix all the trash depots in the complex (a very large one) and then rent would go up. The logic was, some people would have to work (and others live) in a stink of trash so that the rent would not go up.

    I had to threaten legal action to get this situation resolved. To the credit of upper-management of the housing association, they situation has now been addressed and I no longer work in a stink of trash.

    The rent has not gone up.

    • Matthew James Harrison

      Hi Andrew, this is a really interesting comment. Firstly, I’m pleased to hear that you managed to resolve the situation without going down any legal paths, though it’s a shame that you had to threaten action before it was resolved. How long did it take you to get it sorted, I wonder.

      I have now identified exactly where the smoke is coming from and it definitely seems to be less of a problem. However, the fine weather means better ventilation, so it could be a seasonal problem for us.

      If the problem returns with gusto during winter then I will have to bring it up with the housing association once and for all.

      Thanks for sharing your story.

  9. Natalia

    My husband and I live in a kollegiet (student residence) in the outskirts of Aarhus. They are small apartments in the form of rækkehus (not sure how to translate that… adjacent houses?).
    Anyway, our neighbours on both sides moved out recently, and new ones moved in. They (and apparently all their visitors) happen to be regular smokers. They go outside their doors, right next to mine, to smoke. Not only we constantly find cigarette buds on our front door, but the smoke gets clogged under the roof and comes in through our kitchen window. If only they walked 20m in front of their houses…
    To be honest, we aren’t much at home at the moment, so we are sort of patiently waiting for the winter and for them to smoke inside their houses, if they will.
    I have to say, I find some smokers to be really disrespectful towards non-smokers. Countless times I’ve had to wait for the bus under the rain because people were smoking inside those egg-shaped bus stops, where ventilation is close to zero. Or any regular bus-stop crowded with people, for that matter.

    • Matthew James Harrison

      Hi Natalia. I can see that this story is stirring up a fair bit of emotion amongst the non-smokers. It actually caused a debate between myself, my dad (a former smoker) and my partner’s dad (also a former smoker), based on some statistics I’d read about smoking in Denmark. My dad blames the Spice Girls for introducing Girl Power and therefore encouraging more and more women to take up the habit. It’s also a regular topic on a BBC Radio programme back in the UK, and it always prompts callers from both sides to passionately air their grievances and opinions live on air.

      And I believe the translation you’re looking for is Terraced Housing (rækkehus).

      Thanks for your comments.

  10. Brandonbeaud

    Virkelig ked af at høre din dårlige oplevelse, men nu om dage er flere og flere rygere der går over til e-cigaretter for at helt stoppe med at ryge. I forhold til de mange andre alternativ så må ecigaretten have den bedste succe rate for at lykkes, det virkede ihvertifald for mig.: Jeg kan forresten varmt anbefale http://www.ecigashop.dk til andre der også vil stoppe med at ryge.

    • Matthew James Harrison

      No doubt this last post is a slight promotion, but it’s on topic, so I’ll let it through…

  11. Carriene

    My neighbours smoke and unfortunately it comes into my children’s room. On several occasions I’ve had to move them out of their room as the smell of smoke consumes their room. I’ve spoken to the neighbours about it but the problem continues. It’s pure selfishness as far as I’m concerned. I’m fraustrated and annoyed, especially because aside from
    Moving apartments I can’t do anything about it!

    • Matthew James Harrison

      Hi Carriene, sorry to hear about your predicament; as a dad myself I totally understand your concerns. What do your neighbours say when you approach them about it? We’ve lived with this situation for almost two years now and although it seems to be improving (I’ve plugged every single gap I can find!) it still manages to seep in through a cupboard next to the sink. I’m determined to find the hole where it’s coming in, so maybe you can attempt to do the same? Good luck with it all…

  12. Iris

    I am a bit late here, but would really appreciate any help. I moved into a 2 bedroom apartment last weekend, and sadly, it reeks of second-hand cigarette smoke. The surprising fact is that neither my husband, nor I detected any smell when we came for a walk-through. I initially didn’t think of it much, but soon started getting headaches and allergic-like irritation in my nose and throat. Now this, I cannot tolerate. After a bit of investigation, I figured out that the source of the smell is from the kitchen and bathroom. This later on spreads across the entire house, and it almost hits you in the face when you walk in through the front door. I am pretty sure it’s coming from the house downstairs- my husband has seen a lady who smokes in the balcony! I will talk to my landlord to see if he can do anything regarding the ventilation, and maybe even try sealing any gaps/cracks myself (I have noticed a few). However my main concern is that in the bathroom, the smell seems to be coming through the bathtub drain; and turning on the exhaust seems to suck up more of the smell from it. Does anyone have any ideas/ recommendations for this? Thanks.

    • Matthew James Harrison

      Hi Iris, almost nine months later and I’ve only just seen your post! So sorry about that, but there were some hacking issues over at denmark.dk for a while. Anyway, getting back to your comment – is this something that has resolved itself? I’m sorry to hear about the smoke, and I can only empathise with your situation. For the record, we also had a smell coming up through the drains, but this has now ceased. I also spent a lot of time putting cardboard cereal boxes around the edges in the hallway, and taped up the gaps around the kitchen sink pipes. Long story short: the problem has almost fully disappeared. It’s certainly no longer an issue, that’s for sure. The lady below us smokes herself to death, and once she opens her door it hits you in the face. She also smokes in the corridor. I mentioned it to several “important” people and the problem went away. I can’t say for sure what caused it. But please keep us informed as to the progress of your own situation.