Thursday, May 17, 2007

Air Quality Study Q&A

I remember all the way back to third grade when my class learned about cigarette smoke and the damage it causes your lungs (the pictures of black lungs haunt me to this day!), but what we didn’t learn at such an early age is the science behind that damage, and what really is lurking in the air of that smoke-filled bar or restaurant.

An air quality study was recently conducted in central and northern Wisconsin, where research teams used air pollution monitoring equipment to measure the fine particle pollution in restaurants, bars and bowling alleys. The teams tested both smoke-free air sites as well as those establishments where smoking is allowed.

The study itself is rather scientific, and since my undergraduate degree was safely in the liberal arts department of UW-Madison, I thought I’d discuss the methods and findings (see chart) of the research with some of Wisconsin’s tobacco-free coalition leaders in order to fully understand the importance of the study. Joining me in this discussion are DaNita Carlson and Renee Trowbridge, the tobacco-free coalition coordinators for Wood County and Marathon County, respectively.

Q: The statistical findings use a unit of measure labeled PM2.5. What does this unit mean?

DaNita: We tested fine particle air pollution. PM stands for particulate matter, and 2.5 represents particulate matter in the air smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter.

Renee: Particles of this size are released in significant amounts from burning cigarettes and are easily inhaled deep into the lungs.

Q: It is quite obvious that smoke-free establishments had lower readings than those where smoking is allowed, but why do some smoking-allowed facilities have lower readings than other smoking-allowed facilities?

Renee: There are several factors that determined the amount of particulate matter in the air of smoking facilities:

  • Day of the week – weekends had higher readings than weekdays.
  • Time of day – afternoon/evenings had higher readings than mornings.
  • Number of smokers – some establishments had more smokers than others at the time of the test; the more smokers, the more smoke, thus the higher readings.

Q: How do these air quality readings compare to other air pollutants, such as car exhaust?

DaNita Readings taken of rush hour traffic yield about 11 micrograms, compared to an average of 129 micrograms in smoking-allowed facilities. In other words, the level of health-harming air pollutants in smoking-allowed facilities is almost 12 times that of rush hour traffic.

Q: What do you think is the most important finding of the study?

Renee: The average level of fine particle indoor air pollution was 12 times higher in places with observed smoking compared to places that were smoke-free. We know with out a doubt that exposure to secondhand smoke is dangerous to one's health, and sometimes it is even deadly. Employees in the hospitality industry should not have to work in an environment that compromises their health.

DaNita: The average level of fine particle air pollution was 12 times higher in places that allowed smoking than places that were smoke-free. Also, the employees within smoking allowed facilities have annual exposures to fine particle air pollution more than 2 times higher than safe annual levels established by the EPA. Both of these important findings support adopting comprehensive smoke free policies for the health of all citizens!

Q: What do you see as the main message of this study?

DaNita: It's time to get smoking out of all workplaces and public places. Comprehensive smoke-free policies would protect all workers from secondhand smoke exposure.

Renee: Establishments that allow smoking have on average 12 times more pollution than smoke-free establishments and city streets. This means that employees who work in smoke-filled environments are significantly increasing their risk of health problems associated with exposure to secondhand smoke! Hospitality employees have the right to work in safe, smoke-free environments!

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