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Study Pulls Alarm on Smoky Air in Las Vegas Casino : Health: Odds are, carbon dioxide levels from cigarettes exceed federal guidelines in most casinos, researchers say.

June 25, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

No one steps into a Las Vegas casino for a breath of fresh air. But even a regular visitor to those smoke-filled rooms may be troubled by findings of a recent air-quality study that is apparently the first of its kind.

Measuring the air last year in the lobby, casino, dining, showroom, meeting and employee areas of a single unnamed Las Vegas hotel and casino, AE Associates of Greeley, Colo., found that 20 of 24 areas tested had concentrations of carbon dioxide at or beyond the federally recommended maximum. Results for particulate matter in the air were similarly alarming.

Even in the casino's designated nonsmoking pit area, said study co-author Joe F. Boatman in an interview, carbon dioxide and particulate measures exceeded recommended limits.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that secondhand smoke is responsible for lung cancer deaths of 3,000 Americans yearly. The authors of the Las Vegas study, Kenneth Teeters (a lecturer at the University of Nevada Las Vegas' W.F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration), Thomas Jones (assistant professor at the same school) and Boatman (environmental division chief of AE Associates) note that "stale, unhealthy, smoke-laden air is the norm in most casino operations . . . a major health issue that the hospitality industry cannot afford to ignore."

If casinos don't make efforts to clear the air, the authors warn, "They may risk civil litigation." The study, titled "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," was published in the April issue of the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly. The research was paid for by the hotel, which allowed release of the findings if its name wasn't used in the publication.

The most common measure of indoor ventilation quality is carbon dioxide, the inert gas that humans exhale when breathing. Outside air typically carries about 370 parts per million by volume (ppmv) of carbon dioxide, and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's recommended maximum is 800 ppmv.

But that's only a recommendation. Though federal officials are at work on proposals to set legal limits based on carbon dioxide readings, there are now no local, state or federal laws limiting indoor carbon dioxide levels or particulate matter in commercial buildings such as casinos. In the hotel targeted by the survey (identified as a property more than 20 years old with a capacity of more than 2,000 guests nightly), carbon dioxide ppmv counts began at 722, ranging as high as 1,250 (in the keno area), 1,400 (in a restaurant) and even 2,500 (in the money-counting room).

In testing for particulate matter, which is a more direct indicator of smokiness, the study found that every area tested reached or exceeded the researchers' recommended limit. And the casino's air-quality problems went beyond cigarette smoke. Researchers reported air-intake units sucking in air that had just been expelled by exhaust fans, exhaust fumes from idling tour buses, odors from garbage-collection sites and lint from the hotel's laundry.

There's no reason to believe the hotel in the study is less healthy than its counterparts. In fact, Boatman said he has measured worse air quality in a number of other Las Vegas casinos. He also commends the hotel for agreeing to the study and spending about $250,000, by Boatman's estimate, on the first phase of a three-year upgrade effort recommended by the researchers. If all goes according to that plan, Boatman said, the property will eventually comply with recommended carbon dioxide and particulate matter limits.

The air-quality findings are inconvenient news for a destination that has recast itself as a family-friendly getaway, but the area can claim some gains on behalf of nonsmokers. Nevada state law now requires that restaurants with 50 seats or more set aside nonsmoking areas. Some hotels have nonsmoking showrooms.

If OSHA proposals for new restrictions on indoor air are enacted, casinos could be required to separate nonsmokers and smokers, and use ventilation systems to exhaust the fumes of smokers directly outdoors so that smoke can't drift into nonsmoking areas. But the imposition of such restrictions could be years away, and until then, there seem to be certain commercially dictated limits to how much smokelessness a casino can stand. The Silver City casino for three years the only nonsmoking casino on the Strip, relented last December and let smokers back in.

"Historically, Las Vegas has just been ruled by smokers," said a Circus Circus spokeswoman. "We will be the last city on Earth that goes nonsmoking in restaurants."

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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