Pub crawl yields secondhand-smoke signals

Researcher visits 7 cities, including Baltimore

May 21, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Mark Travers sucks secondhand smoke in the name of science.

Since the end of March, the 28-year-old doctoral student at the University at Buffalo has spent 10 nights in 53 watering holes in seven cities - East Coast and West - covertly measuring indoor air pollution, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning.

Sure, he got a lot of beer and some burgers out of the deal, but that doesn't make up for the occupational hazard.

"Spending eight hours in smoky places, it wasn't all that pleasant," said Travers, who is working on a dissertation about the effects of the smoking ban in New York. "My clothes would stink. It was hard to get in to work as early as I normally would. I did come home a few nights with some headaches."

The results of Travers' cross-country pub crawl, released yesterday, confirm what may seem absurdly obvious: The level of indoor air pollution in venues where smoking is allowed is greater than it is where the law prohibits lighting up. But how much greater?

The answer, in short: A lot.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, found that cities without smoke-free laws had nearly six times the level of pollution as those with such ordinances, exposing workers to well over the acceptable limit.

Bars and restaurants in Baltimore - where Travers spent two nights with a "personal aerosol monitor" last month - had nearly 12 times the pollution as those in New York City, where indoor smoking was banned last year. That made it the second smokiest, behind Washington, in the seven-city sample.

Travers began his research in Los Angeles in March, with the one-pound monitor in a bag slung over his shoulder. Over the next several weeks, he took measurements in Buffalo, N.Y., Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Hoboken, N.J., and, finally, Manhattan. Three of the cities were covered by smoke-free laws. Four, including Baltimore, were not.

"Pretty much the protocol is: You go into a facility, you sit down and have a beer or some nachos or whatever, and you spend about a half an hour or hour, and you go to the next place and do it again," said Andrew Hyland, a Roswell Park research scientist who was the study's lead investigator.

Travers took most readings on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m., spending an average of 47 minutes in each establishment (though he stayed 139 minutes in one). He counted the number of people - and burning cigarettes - and used an ultrasonic ruler to determine the size of the room.

All the while, the aerosol monitor did its work. The device, about the size of two soda cans, uses a built-in pump to draw air through a tube that, in Travers' case, stuck out of his bag. He used the monitor to record the average level of pollution at one-minute intervals.

In Baltimore, Travers visited eight bars and restaurants from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point to Charles Village. The average level of particulate matter - which is released into the air from burning cigarettes as well as cooking - was 293 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Compare that to the acceptable exposure level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is 15.

Travers recorded the city's smokiest air at the Charles Village Pub, which measured 636. Around the corner, P.J.'s Pub - which Travers sometimes had patronized as an undergraduate biomedical engineering student at the nearby Johns Hopkins University - measured 496.

The reading at the Horse You Came In On was 526, at the Admiral's Cup, 424. ESPN Zone, where Travers took measurements twice, had the lowest pollution readings, 70 and 67.

Secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, including at least 69 carcinogens. Federal officials estimate that secondhand exposure causes about 3,000 lung cancer deaths and 35,000 heart disease deaths a year.

Five states - California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine and New York - have clean indoor air regulations that apply to virtually all indoor workplaces. In Maryland, Montgomery and Talbot counties are the only jurisdictions that prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants. Legislation to impose a statewide ban was killed by a Senate committee during the 2004 General Assembly session.

"The key link is how [a smoke-free law] translates into the health of the workers who work there," Hyland said. "I don't think it's too much of a leap to at least argue that if you can dramatically reduce exposure, that there are going to be health benefits for the people who work in those places."

A study in the British Medical Journal found that the number of heart attacks reported in Helena, Mont., fell 40 percent during a six-month period in 2002 when an indoor smoke-free law was in effect. That statute is currently on hold because of a court challenge.

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