It used to be that the usual conversation taboos were religion and politics. Now there's a third one that's sure to bring about rancorous debate on both sides of the issue: whether or not smoking should be allowed in public places.

For engineers, the debate involves whether traditional hvac systems can dilute the presence of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) to sufficiently low levels so as not to be harmful to those who do not smoke. Nonsmoking groups say it's not possible regardless of the type of equipment used, while hospitality organizations say that proper ventilation and air filtration can make it almost impossible to detect ETS odors.

Several cities across the country have already banned the use of tobacco in restaurants and public gathering places, which delights nonsmoking groups. Smokers, however, contend that the use of tobacco is legal in the United States and as such, they have a right to use it in public.

ASHRAE decided it was time to weigh in on the issue during its recent Winter Meeting in Atlantic City, NJ, primarily due to the fact that hospitality organizations have lobbied the Society for its own IAQ standard. ASHRAE sponsored two sessions at the recent meeting, both of which addressed whether or not there is a need for a separate IAQ standard for the hospitality industry.

Many believe that the issues involving IAQ and the hospitality industry can be addressed under the Society's flagship IAQ standard, Standard 62. Others state that ASHRAE has created separate IAQ standards for aircraft cabins and medical facilities, so one should be created for the hospitality industry as well, as it has issues specific to its businesses.

ASHRAE has yet to make a decision concerning this issue, but one thing's for sure: Everyone's buzzing about what the Society should and shouldn't do.

On The One Hand...

There are few out there who argue that tobacco use is good for you. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has many facts and figures showing that tobacco use remains the number-one cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, while the surgeon general states that each year more than 400,000 Americans die from tobacco-related diseases.

Some, however, question the effects of secondhand smoke on people who live and work in smoke-filled environments. The CDC states that scientific studies have estimated that secondhand ETS accounts for as many as 62,000 deaths from coronary heart disease annually in the United States, and that ETS causes about 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually among adult nonsmokers.

In addition, the EPA originally classified tobacco smoke as a Class A carcinogen, which puts it in the same category as asbestos and benzene. (That ruling was later overturned when a U.S. District Court vacated several chapters of the EPA document "Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking: Lung Cancer and Other Disorders" that served as the basis for EPA's classification of secondhand smoke as a Group A carcinogen.) That's why the nonsmoking groups want to rid all public facilities of ETS, as they say it endangers the lives of those occupying and working in those establishments.

Standard 62 originally contained language allowing "a moderate amount of smoking," but no one really knows what "moderate" means, so the language was deleted from the standard. For this reason, many call Standard 62 the no-smoking standard. Although it should be noted that since the publication of the 1989 version of the standard (which contained this language), government bodies and health organizations have declared ETS to be a health risk.

"I don't think a separate IAQ standard is necessary for the hospitality industry. I think we can get it done with 62," says Andy Persily, Ph.D., chair of ASHRAE Standing Standards Project Committee 62.1. "The presence of ETS is inconsistent with a key basis for the requirements of the standard, which is minimizing adverse health effects. That's not a new goal; it's been there since 1973. Nevertheless, we are trying to develop design guidance for smoking spaces for odor control."

Persily notes that determining a "safe" exposure to ETS isn't something that ASHRAE is qualified to do, as that is a medical question. However, he says that they are trying to provide some guidance on how much air is needed to control the odor of ETS.

"No health-based organization has told the world what a safe number is, but they are unanimous in declaring it a health risk. While there are people out there who argue that ETS is not bad for you, ASHRAE as a body isn't going to make that call. That wouldn't be responsible. If the tide of medical evidence turns and we find out that ETS is good for you, then ASHRAE would be in a different situation," notes Persily.

Absolutely Not

There is absolutely no safe level of ETS, says Dr. Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine - cardiology, University of California, San Francisco. He is also the founder of an educational movement called Tobacco Scam, which has recently placed ads in engineering publications with the headline, "Will ASHRAE help Big Tobacco attack indoor air quality?"

Glantz states that it's a fallacy to believe that the effects of secondhand smoke are proportional to the dose. That would mean that if low levels of ETS were present, then workers and nonsmokers should not be adversely affected because the dose is low. That may be true for some things, but he says, it's not true where your heart is concerned.

"The heart is exquisitely sensitive to secondhand smoke, and if you spent 30 minutes in an environment with levels of secondhand smoke lower than have been measured in bars, it clobbers the ability of the arteries in your heart to regulate themselves as much as if you were a pack-a-day smoker," says Glantz.

He adds that if ASHRAE is writing a risk-based standard, then the concentrations of ETS that would be permitted would be just tiny. "If you plan to just blow the ETS away with general dilution ventilation or even one-pass ventilation, you'd have to give all occupants large paperweights, because you'd have a tornado blowing through. The [tobacco] industry is trying to push this standard for odor control, but the levels of toxins in smoke are way higher. You have to get to huge levels of toxins to be able to smell them," adds Glantz.

Needless to say, Glantz isn't happy at all that ASHRAE is considering a separate standard for the hospitality industry, because he believes it is driven solely by tobacco interests. He says that bars have become the most important venue in which tobacco companies can still promote cigarettes. In essence, if bars are made smoke-free, it will make it harder for the industry to sell cigarettes.

"I think ASHRAE is acting completely and totally irresponsibly," says Glantz. "I think they have been pretty well infiltrated by the tobacco industry and its various interests, and the fact that they did that seminar [at the Winter Meeting] without a single cognizant health authority participating was absolutely irresponsible. The people they had on that panel, except for one guy, all had direct or indirect ties to the cigarette companies."

While Glantz concedes that the existing Standard 62 is "OK" as far as discouraging ETS in buildings, he says that it never should have been put into continuous maintenance. He contends that the tobacco industry was behind that as well, and putting the standard into continuous maintenance was "giving the tobacco industry the world's biggest lollipop."

That's because health groups haven't been paying attention to what most consider to be an engineering standard, and they also don't have huge amounts of resources to track every addendum being added to the standard. His fear is that some sort of smoking language will be slipped into the existing standard via an addendum, because "the tobacco companies can just hire an army of people to overwhelm the process, and that's how they do things."

More Issues To Consider

There are more issues that need to be considered in the hospitality world than just ETS, notes Steve Grover, vice president, health and safety regulatory affairs, National Restaurant Association.

"The [Standard 62] committee has been wholly focused on tobacco instead of indoor air quality and ventilation. I believe that's why it's necessary for us to have a separate standard, so we can deal with it not as a tobacco issue but as an IAQ issue," says Grover.

Some of those other IAQ issues include fumes coming from table-side cooking, mesquite grilling, kitchen and dining room interface, wood-fired pizza ovens, and open kitchen concepts. "Unfortunately with the focus of this committee being pretty much the elimination of smoking in public places it's been very difficult to raise the dialogue beyond that and get to comfort and indoor air quality, which we feel is what customers want," he adds.

And there are still more IAQ issues that need to be considered in the hospitality industry, says Steve Barringer, a lawyer representing the American Gaming Association (AGA). For example, casinos can have enormous indoor spaces that include restaurants, stores, casino floors, and registration desk areas all under one roof. Those types of buildings have enormously large and complex ventilation systems.

"Contrast that with the corner tavern that's also a hospitality space, where the financial means of that owner are completely different and it's also a different space. It's small. So size and diversity are one really hard thing to deal with hospitality," says Barringer. "In addition there are hotels that have lots of rooms, so you've got large spaces and a common space and very small spaces in the rooms themselves. [The hotels also have] enormously complex plumbing systems. There are mold and mildew issues in those places that are just starting to be understood, that are really just about unique to hospitality."

All those issues - as well as ETS - could be addressed in a separate hospitality standard. Customer comfort and happiness are primary concerns in the hospitality industry, and the fact remains that some customers like to smoke in restaurants, and restaurants and other venues feel that it is their responsibility to accommodate those customers as well as the ones who don't smoke. They want to be able to please everyone.

Barringer notes that the difficulty in talking about ETS as an indoor air pollutant is that nobody has developed a numeric standard or other approach to figure out what constitutes a safe level of exposure to ETS. "It is absolutely true that smoking is dangerous and causes cancer and clearly, significant exposure to secondhand smoke is dangerous. I don't think anybody debates that anymore. The question becomes, if you're casually exposed to a minimal amount, in some cases so minimal that you might not smell it or notice it, is there some level at which that would be safe?"

Since that level is not known, he says, the only way the problem has been addressed is to assume zero exposure is the best way to go. "There are ways to use ventilation rates and tools that are known to mechanical engineers such as ventilation, filtration, and other things, that could provide a comfortable and safe indoor atmosphere, if people were interested in investigating those and developing them. I believe that's the case, and from the perspective of AGA, as long as some of our customers want to smoke and feel that's important to them, we hope very much that there's a solution like that," says Barringer.

Grover notes that by focusing on ETS, ASHRAE is ignoring other carcinogens that are equally as dangerous as cigarette smoke, such as the vapors coming off carpets, wallpaper, and mesquite grilling. "We literally have carcinogens around us at all times, but what keeps us from getting cancer is the fact that those carcinogens are in low concentrations. It's not zero. We can never live in a zero world, so if you're trying to get zero, you're trying for an unattainable standard. This concept that we must get to zero for only these particular carcinogens is overly focused," says Grover.

Separate Guideline

That issue of getting to zero is unnerving as well to Richard Evans, P.E., a retired engineer and ASHRAE fellow in Richland, WA who moderated the aforementioned ASHRAE forum concerning whether or not a separate IAQ standard is needed for the hospitality industry.

"Standard 62.1 has a flaw, and that is it's a zero tolerance for smoke. That just isn't realistic. First of all, it's not scientifically good. It's obviously politically correct. Since it has a zero tolerance for smoke, the question is, how do we put together a standard that would accommodate smoking? I don't think it's going to happen real soon as a standard," says Evans.

Evans doesn't necessarily think a separate standard is required, but he would like to see a separate guideline put together concerning the issue of ETS. "We do that all the time in actual practice. It's not written down as an ASHRAE standard, and as long as there's a zero tolerance, it won't be. Once the scientific basis for an amount of tobacco smoke in the air is established with some authority, then Standard 62 could be modified and quite possibly, include the hospitality industry."

Persily notes that perhaps one way to approach this issue is to take smoking out of Standard 62 all together and put it in another document. That document wouldn't even mention indoor air quality, and it would just contain guidance for designing smoking spaces.

"We could provide options to the engineers on how to come up with the design ventilation rates and how to implement air cleaning strategies and all sorts of good stuff that they could use based on their professional judgment, and leave it at that. That may be the best solution to all this," says Persily.

As might be expected, Glantz disagrees: "Dropping secondhand smoke, which is the leading source of indoor air pollution, from the standard would represent a huge victory for the tobacco industry."

Until ASHRAE makes a determination as to whether or not the hospitality industry requires a separate IAQ standard, you can bet that opinions (and accusations) will continue to fly. ES