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Smoke-Free Buildings as Poison Incubators
There are two kinds of states - Those that are like California and those that are like it and don't know it yet.

[Wayne Lusvardi] 10/26/05

The gun smoke from political conflicts long-settled in California over second-hand smoking have only more recently drifted into states like Illinois and Nebraska. In Chicago the city is considering banning smoking in virtually all restaurants, bars and commercial buildings while the suburbs, such as Arlington Heights, Evanston, and Wheeling have rejected such smoking bans. In Lincoln, Nebraska, an ingenious restaurant owner has figured out a way to beat the recent voter-approved smoking ban by parking his R.V. bus in front of his diner wherein patrons can both eat and smoke and which is exempt from restaurant building anti-smoking bans.

The spread of bans on smoking in public places reminds us of what Guy Kawasaki of Apple Computer famously said about companies that had succumbed to what is called the bureaucratic Dilbert Principle based on the comic strip character Dilbert (R): “There are two types of companies. Those that recognize that they are just like Dilbert and those that are also like Dilbert but don’t know it yet.” Well, with second-hand smoke there apparently are two types of state and local governments – those that are like California and those that are also like it but don’t know it yet.

The bureaucratic office cubicle world of the cartoon character Dilbert is filled with managers who are clueless. Likewise politicians, bureaucrats, and servile environmental engineers and scientists are mostly clueless that it isn’t second-hand smoke per se that is a perceived health threat to the public, but the confinement and concentration of such smoke in sealed buildings. In fact, the results of the preponderance of objective studies on the health effects of passive smoking are inconclusive.

Guest Contributor
Wayne Lusvardi

Wayne Lusvardi worked for 20 years for the Metro Water District of So. Cal. and lives in Pasadena. The views expressed are his own. . Wayne receives e-mail at

Indoor air quality did not exist as a public policy issue until government enacted building energy efficiency standards in the 1970’s in response to the “oil crisis” of that era. After the enactment of such standards 29 members of the American Legion who attended a convention in 1976 at the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia died of a form of pneumonia that was later dubbed “Legionnaire’s Disease.” The outbreak was traced to a bacterium (Legionella pneumo-phila) in the hotel’s air conditioning system. The media and science were mostly silent about the role that newer building energy efficiency standards had to play in such lethal events. It was only until such standards mandated “energy tight buildings” with sealed windows and the replacement of interior wall partitions with office cubes so that conditioned air could flow over the cube walls that what was called “sick building syndrome” began to appear.

For example, in 1981 the State of California opened the Bateson Building in Sacramento as a model for Title 24 energy conservation standards. Within a year the monument to energy efficiency was the focal point of a $500,000 class action suit on behalf of 1,200 state employees who worked in the building. As Alice Ottoboni, PhD, staff toxicologist with the California Department of Public Health for 20 years, has aptly summed up the problem of indoor air pollution and modern building energy standards in her book The Dose Makes the Poison: “Fuel is saved, but people are made ill.”

A cross-sectional study of 2,678 workers from 41 office buildings in Helsinki, Finland definitively showed that “sick building syndrome” highly correlated with office buildings with mechanical ventilation compared with natural ventilation. Office workers in older buildings with movable windows and ceiling-to-floor walls experienced dramatically less sick days than those in “energy efficient buildings.”

Older commercial buildings were designed to allow open windows, cross ventilation, and walled-off offices, oftentimes with window air conditioners. In order to retain heat or cooled air, newer buildings have sealed internal environments, central air conditioning systems, and large open floor plates with half-wall modular furniture permitting a wide variety of agents to circulate in the air.

The general principle of toxicology, “the dose makes the poison,” is that exposure to small doses of trace elements is typically an insufficient cause of ill health or life-threatening diseases. The problem with energy tight buildings is that normal trace amounts of pathogens, allergens, or irritants may be confined, concentrated, or continually re-circulated inside buildings so that their effect is magnified.

This “concentration effect,” not necessarily the toxin itself, is the mostly overlooked root cause of many building-associated environmental maladies such as radon gas, asbestos, and formaldehyde in carpet, mold, secondhand smoke and even anthrax. If the recent scare about the Bird Flu has any credibility, it is likely that vulnerable populations in nursing homes and schools would be hit first and then healthy adult populations in government and corporate office buildings followed public commercial establishments like restaurants.

It is questionable whether such building energy efficiency standards are that effective in reducing the waste of energy in the first place. In places such as California there are probably many days during the year where natural building ventilation would save energy over mechanical ventilation. It is indeed a curious case of “cognitive dissonance” (where perception does not square with the facts) as to how the public puts up with increased sick days from influenzas due to working in tight office and government buildings but is outraged at the minor annoyance of tobacco smoke in restaurants. And the public is not outraged at all about the threat to human health that such building environments potentially pose due to anthrax or small pox exposure by an act of terrorism.

Politicians won’t dare change the energy regulations that are the apparent root cause of much indoor air pollution. An entire industry of so-called experts has been created in both academia and in the engineering professions with a vested interest in the scientific status quo. Nor will they alter the tort law system to prevent the exploitation of a situation that has been created by government regulations in the first place.

Rational argument tends to be ineffective against such entrenched interests legitimated by scientifically vested ideas and powerful cultural forces of health activism, consumerism, and environmentalism. Bans on public smoking are what political scientists S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman call a “political disease” in their book Environmental Cancer: A Political Disease? We could call it a California kind of political disease that continues to spread throughout the United States. And like cancer, no one has come up with a cure yet. CRO

copyright 2005 Wayne Lusvardi




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