Tuesday, December 12, 2006

OSHA standards and air quality testing enter the secondhand smoke debate

There have been few issues in the news over the past number of years that have generated more controversy, disagreement and emotion than whether to ban smoking in public, and even private places. This controversy doesn’t stem from whether smoking is a health risk. There is no disagreement there. Smoking has been proven to significantly increase a person’s risk of cancer, heart disease and other health problems. Rather, the focus has been on the rights of smokers and the risks associated with the secondhand smoke they create. Locally that controversy has been aimed specifically at local bar owners. Should they be forced by law, for reasons of public health, to ban smoking from their businesses in the same way restaurants have? Would doing so improve public health?

To answer that question, it is important to first get past the emotion surrounding the issue. The welfare of our society should be important to all of us. When we believe something threatens that, we get excited. We get emotional. That’s alright. When properly channeled, emotions motivate people to take action. However, when people react to a problem based on their emotional response, it can be easy to charge ahead to take action with inadequate or inaccurate information.

Smoking, and its related secondhand smoke is just such an issue. Few would disagree that the world would be a healthier place if cigarette smoking simply didn’t exist. Unfortunately, that isn’t the reality. People do smoke and smoking creates secondhand smoke. Furthermore, a significant percentage of people who frequent bars smoke. Those smokers are knowingly taking a health risk, but since smoking tobacco products is not against the law, they are engaging in a legal activity. The controversy comes when people who have chosen not to smoke are exposed to secondhand smoke. Does breathing secondhand smoke put them at risk, and if so by how much? Is there an acceptable level?

According to OSHA there is. In matters of protecting the health and safety of employees, it is not only the responsibility of OSHA to set the standards, but to continually monitor the workplace to assure that employees are not being subjected to undue risk. To test secondhand smoke levels, OSHA measures nicotine levels. Nicotine is the only unique chemical in secondhand smoke. Other chemicals present in cigarette smoke like formaldehyde and benzene can come from other sources such as carpet, furniture, burning foods in the kitchen or diesel exhaust from outdoors. The OSHA permissible exposure limit for an eight hour work day, forty hours per week is 0.5 milligrams of nicotine per cubic meter.

Based on that standard, how do businesses that permit smoking measure up? The American Cancer Society tested the quality of breathable air for workers in western New York state in such varied places as restaurants with an enclosed smoking area, bars and taverns, bowling centers and bingo halls. The results ranged from a low of 20 nanograms of nicotine per cubic meter to a high of 940 nanograms per cubic meter. A nanogram is .000001 of a milligram. The highest concentration of nicotine in the worst of these locations was still 532 times safer than the OSHA limit of 0.5 milligrams of nicotine per cubic meter.

Testing in other parts of the country has shown similar results. In St. Louis Park, Minnesota secondhand smoke concentrations, as measured by the environmental health department, ranged from a low of 500 times safer than OSHA standards at Cafe Europa to 152 times safer at an Applebees, to a worst case of 15.4 times safer than the OSHA guideline at Al’s Liquor.

Regarding secondhand smoke, OSHA’s acting Assistant Secretary Greg Watchman wrote, “Field studies of environmental tobacco smoke indicate that under normal conditions, the components in tobacco smoke are diluted below (safer than) existing Permissible Exposure Levels (PELs) as referenced in the Air Contaminant Standard (29 CFR 1910.1000)...it would be very rare to find a workplace with so much smoking that any individual PEL would be exceeded.”

Government officials accept OSHA air quality standards in factories where workers are exposed to welding smoke at concentrations much higher and more carcinogenic than secondhand tobacco smoke. Yet because of the health risk smoking represents to the smoker and the strong negative emotions associated with smoking, the risks of secondhand smoke are exaggerated well beyond what OSHA and even the American Cancer Society have measured and shown to be hundreds of times safer than OSHA standards.

Although air quality testing in restaurants and bars does show trace amounts of nicotine it does not, by OSHA standards, constitute a health hazard justifying a government mandated smoking ban. Because smoking bans eliminate bar and restaurant patrons, establishment owners should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they want to make their establishment smoke free.

Update: Smoking bans have a very detrimental effect on jobs and the world economy.

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