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July 25, 2014

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Study finds high pollution levels in casino restaurants

UNLV testing shows 12 of 16 at levels that exceed EPA standards

More than two years after the Nevada Legislature passed the Indoor Clean Air Act, a UNLV and University of Kentucky study has found unsafe levels of air pollution due to secondhand smoke in Las Vegas Valley casino restaurants.

UNLV associate professor of nursing Nancy York and Kiyoung Lee, associate professor of public health at the University of Kentucky, measured the air quality of 16 casinos -- eight on the Strip and eight off the Strip. The testing was done on the casino floor and in restaurant areas.

While the study found all restaurant areas had lower secondhand smoke levels than gaming areas, it found 12 of the 16 casinos had restaurant areas with air pollution levels exceeding Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Nine were at levels deemed unsafe for anyone. Three of the 12 exceeded levels recommended by the EPA as safe for children, the elderly and people with lung diseases.

A UNLV graduate assistant entered the casinos with a device called a sidepack, which takes in continuous air samples. Samples were taken between 1 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays between November 2007 and March 2008.

Air samples were taken in gaming areas and non-smoking restaurants in the casinos. York sent the data to Lee at Kentucky to analyze.

The result: All 16 gaming areas that were tested exceeded levels that the EPA deemed safe. York said they found no statistical difference between Strip casinos and those off the Strip.

“These findings have serious life-threatening consequences for casino employees and patrons,” York said in a statement. “Previous research has found smoke-filled casinos can have up to 50 times more cancer-causing particles in the air than highways and city streets during rush-hour traffic. Our research helps to confirm this.”

Although the casinos are not in violation of the Nevada Indoor Clean Air Act, York said the elderly, small children and people with cardiac or lung problems increase their risk of becoming ill the longer they are exposed to secondhand smoke. The Clean Air Act prohibits smoking in all indoor space in the state, with the exception of areas that are prohibited to minors.

“The casinos are not breaking any laws whatsoever but it’s important for people to understand that just because there’s no smoking going on in certain parts of casinos, they still may be exposed to secondhand smoke,” York said.

Maria Azzarelli, coordinator of tobacco control programs at the Southern Nevada Health District, said she has received calls from casino companies about how to make certain areas smoke-free, such as poker rooms and gaming sections. Azzarelli said the only way to combat secondhand smoke is to make the entire facility smoke-free.

“The fact that the secondhand smoke permeated through to the restaurants in the casino areas wasn’t a surprise since many of those restaurants are totally open and there’s no barrier,” Azzarelli said. “Even if there was a barrier, we would expect that secondhand smoke would enter into the facility, although it would be reduced.”

The study doesn’t identify the 16 casinos that were tested. Officials with three large gaming companies said they didn’t want to comment because they didn’t know if any of their properties were included.

Nevada Resort Association President Bill Bible said most casinos hire environmental engineers, but he didn’t know if casinos have done secondhand smoke testing on their own.

“I would think that if you went into more modern properties, there has been a lot of emphasis in recent years on air handling equipment and ventilation, so they are generally going to have more sophisticated ventilation requirements in newer properties,” Bible said.

Azzarelli disagrees.

“Sometimes some of the gaming properties report that they have an innovative, top-of-the-line ventilation system. Well, the ventilation companies themselves have stated the systems cannot remove secondhand smoke, so ventilation isn’t really an option,” she said.

The study doesn’t push for any action to taken, such as a ban on smoking in casinos. Bible said such a ban would greatly affect visitor numbers and the overall economy.

“The casino business is a business that caters to the wishes of our customers. If our customers did not desire to be able to smoke in a casino, I’ve got to believe that smoking would be banned in casinos across the board,” he said. “A lot of customers, because we are in a global economy, come from places around the world where there is a heavy tradition of smoking.”

Bible said he believes the study will provoke debate, most likely in the Legislature. York agrees.

“There are smoke-free laws going into affect for casinos across the nation,” York said. “Whether or not the state Legislature or Nevada public wants to change our law, this is data for them to make an informed decision.”

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