Report: Smoky casino air fails EPA standards

Jan 15, 2009 1:30 AM
Staff & Wire Reports |

Air quality inside Indiana casinos is far worse than federal standards deem healthy, even in non-smoking gambling areas, according to a new study by anti-smoking advocates and researchers from Purdue University.

The study may not come as a surprise to gamblers smelling of cigarette smoke after visiting a casino. But advocates hope the new data will spur lawmakers into passing a law to ban smoking in all public places statewide, which they say would protect casino workers from the health effects of secondhand smoke.

"It is both the reasonable and responsible thing to do," said Dr. Christopher Doehring, with the Indiana Academy of Family Physicians, which funded the study. "It is unconscionable, especially in this economy, to put working Hoosiers in the position to have to decide between their own health and whether or not to keep their current job."

Opponents of a statewide smoking ban -- including the Casino Association of Indiana -- say the proposal would slash casino revenues and could put hundreds of people out of work.

"It truly does impact business," said Mike Smith, the association's president. "The economics of it has to be a part of the equation."

Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, plans to introduce a bill that would ban smoking in public places statewide with no exemptions. He said workers in places like restaurants, bars and casinos deserve the same protections against secondhand smoke as other employees.

Republican Sen. Gary Dillon of Columbia City has proposed a similar bill. It is unclear whether either bill will move forward, but advocates hoped the study released Tuesday would help convince lawmakers of dangerous levels of pollutants in casinos.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it's healthy to have up to 35 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter in the air over 24 hours. But the study found the average level of fine particle pollution in casino gambling areas was 159 micrograms per cubic meter. Seven of the 11 casinos measured had non-smoking areas, and the average level in those areas was 48 micrograms per cubic meter.

A gambler at Indiana casinos would exceed the EPA's 24-hour health limits within an average of just four hours, said Neil Zimmerman, an associate professor of industrial hygiene at Purdue University who conducted the study.

Student volunteers collected data at Indiana's 11 casinos in April and May 2008, and the study did not include gambling areas at the state's two race tracks because the data was collected before they added slot machines. Some measurements were collected on Friday and Saturday nights, while others were taken during less busy times.

Pollution levels at the 11 casinos ranged from healthy levels in one casino to more than 300 micrograms per cubic meter at two others. But advocates did not release data for specific casinos because of the inconsistencies of when the measurements were taken, and said their study was meant to show the health dangers of the entire gambling industry rather than calling out individual casinos.

Cigarette and cigar smoke bothers casino worker Karena Walters, from southeastern Indiana, who said it's not fair that many workers in public places are protected by non-smoking ordinances but she is not covered. Walters said she is often asked why she stays in the job if the smoke bothers her so much.

"It's hard, especially nowadays with the economy the way it is, to find a job," she said, adding that she earns good wages. "I don't feel that I should have to choose between my job and my health."

But Smith said people applying for jobs at casinos know what they are getting into, and casinos offer entertainment for adults who can make their own health decisions.

Smith said his association would seek an exemption to any statewide smoking ban considered by the Legislature. Restaurant and bar owners -- and lobbyists representing them -- are also working against a potential ban.

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