Second-hand Smoke Study Finds Non-smoking Workers Immediately Absorb Carcinogen

SCIENTISTS have found that nonsmoking restaurant and bar employees absorb a potent carcinogen while working in places where they had to breathe tobacco smoke from customers and co-workers. The carcinogen, NNK, is found in the body only as a result of using tobacco or breathing secondhand smoke.

In a study to be published in the August edition of the American Journal of Public Health, investigators at the Multnomah County Health Department and Oregon Department of Human Services report that elevated levels of NNK showed up in the urine of nonsmoking employees shortly after they encountered secondhand smoke during their shifts. Moreover, levels of NNK, which is known to cause lung cancer, increased by 6 percent for each hour of work.

"This is the first study to show increases in NNK as a result of a brief workplace exposure, and that levels of this powerful carcinogen continue to increase the longer the person works in a place where smoking is permitted. NNK is a major cancer-causing agent from tobacco products -- and workers should not have to be exposed to any dose of this very dangerous chemical," said Michael Stark, PhD, of the Multnomah County Health Department and the study's lead author. "The science shows that the threat of disease from secondhand smoke is no longer a distant threat. The amount of this carcinogen increases even within a single work shift."

In a related study in the same issue of the journal, experts in public health law note that across the country employers already are being held legally liable for exposing workers to secondhand smoke, even if state or local laws permit workplace smoking. They warn that as scientists continue to provide evidence of harm, employers could soon face a clear choice: either voluntarily ban smoking in their workplace or face an increasing wave of costly legal actions.

"When employers that allow smoking have scientists telling them that as soon as workers get on the job, they're breathing in some of the most dangerous carcinogens around, it's time to think about whether they want to deal with that kind of liability," said Marice Ashe with the Public Health Law Program at the Public Health Institute in Oakland, Calif., and the lead author of the legal analysis. "The science is making it easier and easier to persuade courts to sanction employers who continue to allow smoking."

The Stark study on the effects of workplace smoking, "The Impact of Clean Indoor Air Exemptions and Preemption on the Prevalence of a Tobacco-Specific Lung Carcinogen Among Nonsmoking Bar and Restaurant Workers," was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Substance Abuse Policy Research Program (SAPRP -- http://www.saprp.org).

It followed 52 nonsmoking employees of bars and restaurants in Oregon communities where smoking is still permitted in such establishments and compared them to 32 nonsmoking bar and restaurant employees from other Oregon municipalities where smoking is prohibited by local ordinance. Researchers collected urine samples from both groups before and after their work shifts and tested them for the tobacco produced lung carcinogen NNK.

In their analysis of the legal and liability issues raised by workplace smoking hazards -- "Legal Risks to Employers Allowing Smoking in the Workplace" -- Ashe and her colleagues said employees harmed by secondhand smoke already are using workers' compensation laws, state and federal disability laws and an employer's legal responsibility to "provide a safe workplace" to take action against secondhand smoke. While in the past such cases have not always met with success, the study notes that as the scientific evidence mounts, employers will increasingly be on the losing end.

"Employers are always talking about high costs of insurance and the need to reduce their potential liabilities," Ashe said. "Voluntarily banning smoking and supporting state and local legislation mandating smoke-free workplaces is a relatively cheap and easy way of removing a cumbersome and costly liability."

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