What is a smoke eater?

In the 1800s, firefighters wore the name “smoke eater” with pride. The term represented a life spent running towards danger to save people and property from harm, regardless of the personal health risks. Back then, the phrase was literal, as there were limited options to protect those brave individuals from smoke inhalation. 

Now, firefighters use self-contained breathing apparatuses to protect their respiratory tracts from the smoke. And we use the term “smoke eater” in an entirely different context. 

A smoke eater is any device that removes smoke and odors from the air. You can use it to clean the air of any type of smoke, from cigarettes to wildfires to kitchen catastrophes. No matter the source, smoke is a complex pollutant. So, a good smoke eater must be effective against a wide range of gases and particulate matter.

Here, we break down what a smoke eater is, why you may want one in your home, and how different filtration technologies stack up against the components of smoke.

Don’t eat smoke!

Smoke is a product of combustion, and it contains a wide mixture of particles and gases. Smoke particles can be solid or liquid, some of which are big enough to be seen by the naked eye. (This is why you can see smoke billowing from its source.) However, many particles in smoke are microscopic—smaller than 0.1 micrometers in size.

The gases in smoke come from a few places. Combustion creates some, such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Others come from the materials being burned. For example, tobacco smoke contains over 250 harmful chemical gases, including at least 69 carcinogens.

If you don’t have a smoke eater tackling indoor air pollution from smoke, your lungs take on the job. That’s bad for a variety of reasons.

Why is smoke so bad for you?

The most significant danger of smoke inhalation comes from airborne particulate matter. These tiny particles are small enough to be inhaled and enter the lungs. The smaller the particle, the deeper it can travel into the body—from the lungs, into the bloodstream, and then to the organs.

Exposure to fine particles in the air has been linked to many health problems, including:

  • Heart and lung disease;
  • Elevated blood pressure;
  • Irregular heartbeat and nonfatal heart attacks;
  • Worsened asthma symptoms;
  • Coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

Recent research suggests that the effects of particle pollution go beyond the heart and lungs. Exposure to pollutants, like those found in smoke, may be associated with reproductive issues in males and females, as well as an increased risk of diabetes and dementia.

Gaseous pollutants aren’t exactly harmless, either. Many of the gases found in smoke are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause:

  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation;
  • Headaches;
  • Nausea and vomiting;
  • Loss of coordination;
  • Kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage.

Plus, some VOCs found in smoke are carcinogens, like arsenic, benzene, and formaldehyde. 

Aside from their direct health effects, VOCs can also react with sunlight and other airborne pollutants to create even more pollution. Called secondary organic aerosols (SOAs), these particles may be even more harmful than primary particle pollution.

What makes a good smoke eater?

A good smoke eater should be able to take care of visible smoke and smoke odors, meaning it should remove both particles and harmful gases from the indoor air. To do this, it uses a fan to push air through a filter that traps smoke particles, cleaning the air as it passes through. A smoke eater’s effectiveness largely boils down to how well its filter can capture the different components of smoke.

HEPA

High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are made of a tightly woven mesh designed to capture at least 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 micrometers or larger. For particles that are smaller or larger than 0.3 micrometers, that percentage declines. (Remember, many smoke particles are less than 0.1 micrometers.) HEPA filters are not designed to remove gaseous pollutants—such as VOCs and odor-causing gases—from the air.

Can it remove smoke odors? No.

Can it remove particle pollution? Yes.

Carbon

Carbon filters use a bed of activated carbon to trap gaseous pollutants. As air travels through the filter, VOCs stick to its surface in a process called adsorption. The bigger the filter, the more available surface area for gases to stick to. Carbon filters can remove VOCs and odors from an indoor space, but they contain large holes that let particle pollution pass right through. 

Can it remove smoke odors? Yes.

Can it remove particle pollution? No.

Combination

Since HEPA and carbon filters trap different types of pollution, they’re sometimes combined to filter both particles and gases. This method has two potential drawbacks. First, these double filters may have more air resistance than a single filter, making the smoke eater’s fan work harder to push air through the filter. This can make it harder for the unit to clean the air in an entire room. Second, it can be more expensive to buy and replace two filters instead of one.

Can it remove smoke odors? Yes.

Can it remove particle pollution? Yes.

PECO

The traditional PECO-Filter (found in Molekule air purifiers) traps particle pollution and breaks down VOCs at the molecular level. It can also detect and destroy ultrafine particles up to 1,000 times smaller than the HEPA standard. For added protection from smoke, the PECO-HEPA Tri-Power filter combines carbon, HEPA, and PECO into one filter, for added protection from smoke.

Can it remove smoke odors? Yes.

Can it remove particle pollution? Yes.

Note: Carbon monoxide, a dangerous ingredient in smoke, cannot be removed with a smoke eating air purifier. To protect yourself from inhalation, maintain good ventilation and a working carbon monoxide sensor in any room where smoke is an issue.

What’s the best smoke eater for the home?

The best smoke eater is one that you’ll actually use consistently. If it’s not on, it’s not cleaning the air. So, you’ll want to look for a home smoke eater that’s quiet enough to leave on all day. It’ll also help if it’s aesthetically pleasing and fits with your home décor. (If you’re hiding the air cleaner in the closet every time company comes over, it’s not going to be able to do its job.)

When looking for an air purifier, consider where you want it to “eat” the smoke. Potential sources of smoke in the home include:

  • Cooking: When food burns, it creates smoke. You may not think about air pollution when you’re smelling the sweet aromas of a home-cooked meal, but preparing large meals with high-heat appliances (like your stove and oven) can create enough particulate matter for the pollution in your kitchen to rival the levels found in the world’s busiest cities.
  • Candles: Burning incense or candles creates harmful smoke containing particulate matter. But they also release VOCs, especially scented candles. Some candles off-gas dangerous levels of VOCs before they’re even lit. So, no matter what a product’s marketing says, candles cannot purify the air, and there’s no such thing as a “smoke eating candle.”
  • Secondhand smoke: Sometimes, you just can’t control your surroundings. If you have neighbors who smoke outside or frequently use their fireplace or grill, you may notice some smoke drifting into your home. Secondhand smoke is dangerous for your health, and it should be addressed. (If possible, ask your neighbor to smoke farther away from your doors or windows. That way, your indoor smoke eater has an easier task.)

Smoke eaters for smoking rooms

Cleaning the air in a smoking room is an uphill battle, but it’s not impossible. First, high ventilation levels are key—exchange smoky air with clean outdoor air by opening windows and using fans to blow air outdoors. (Quick tip: Don’t put the fan directly in the window. Fans blow more air outdoors when placed about a foot in front of an open window.)

Many people enjoying a hookah lounge

Next, you’ll need to consider third-hand smoke. This is the tobacco residue that sticks to the objects it touches—furniture, carpets, bookshelves, curtains, and even ceilings and walls. To minimize the third-hand smoke in your room, consider switching out fabric furniture for easy-to-clean wooden or plastic pieces. Likewise, replacing carpets with vinyl or wood flooring can reduce lingering tobacco odors. A steam cleaner may help remove odors from fabric items that cannot be thrown away.

Regular cleaning is essential for improving the air quality in a smoking room. Vinegar-based cleaners can help remove nicotine residue from hard surfaces while cutting through some of the odor. For spot odor control, vinegar and lemon juice can be an effective spray air freshener. Activated charcoal powder and baking soda can also be used to absorb cigarette odors. Just sprinkle it on a surface, leave it overnight, and vacuum it up in the morning.

Then, of course, you’ll want to add a smoke eater to the room. Remember to look for one that can handle the mix of pollutants in smoke. For example, PECO technology can help remove airborne particles and destroy any odor-causing VOCs. 

 

Smoke is only visible for a short time, but its effects on indoor air quality can linger long after it disappears from view. A smoke eater can help remove pollutants, but even the most efficient smoke exhaust fans aren’t a substitute for source control. Smoke is best tackled with an integrated approach: decrease or eliminate smoke at the source, wash floors and furniture to remove lingering odors, and use a smoke eater to clean the air.

Written by

Catherine Poslusny is an experienced writer and content marketing strategist based in Oklahoma City. She has written for tech and healthcare brands since 2016, focusing on companies that prioritize healthcare accessibility and inclusivity. Catherine has written extensively about air quality, medical procedures, healthcare costs and insurance, and reproductive health. You can find her at catherinerosewrites.com.