Smoking parents who don’t want to expose their kids to secondhand smoke typically puff near an open window or go outside. But does that really help? A device invented at Dartmouth College in the lab of Chemistry Professor Joseph BelBruno can tell them, and do it in real time.

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About the size of a matchbox, the device has a sensor with a polymer sheet designed to pick up nicotine molecules in the air. When the molecules come into contact with the polymer, an electrical signal gets generated and is sent to the device’s microprocessor. From there, the information would be delivered wirelessly to a smartphone or other computer to be read in real time. The polymer is sensitive enough to pick up concentrations measured in parts per billion. It’s even possible to correlate how much nicotine there is in the air with an equivalent number of cigarettes.

Because the device is designed to update the data continuously, it’s easy to see how much second-hand smoke you — or your child — is breathing in any given area.

The device runs on a simple battery and except for the microprocessor and sensor, most of the parts can be obtained from a local electronics store. BelBruno told Discovery News that the sensor could be mass-produced in a way that would make it easy for the consumer to replace the polymer sheets.

For parents, such a sensor would be a way to open up the conversation about how much a parent’s habit can affect his or her kid. For instance, readings from the sensor could show that smoking by the window isn’t reducing the amount of dangerous nicotine in the air. “There’s even some infiltration when you’re out on the porch,” he said. “So maybe someone would go to the end of the driveway.” BelBruno said support for the research came from both pediatricians and cancer researchers.

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Another use is in hotels. Hotels usually just charge people if they suspect they’ve lit up in a non-smoking room. But it’s the customer’s word against the hotel staff and the customer is always right, yes? Since this sensor can measure nicotine concentrations over time, it isn’t hard to correlate the increase with when a given person was in the room (or not).

There are other uses as well. The same kind of technology, with a slightly different polymer membrane, can be used to pick up other chemicals. One idea is to use it for formaldehyde, which is often a suspect in “sick building” syndrome.

Credit: Dartmouth College