Does breathing secondhand smoke put nonsmokers at risk? Is there an acceptable level?
According to OSHA, there is. In matters of protecting the health and safety of employees, it is the responsibility of OSHA to not only set the standards, but to continually monitor the workplace to ensure employees are not being subjected to undue risk. To test secondhand smoke levels, OSHA measures nicotine levels. Nicotine is the only unique chemical in secondhand smoke. Other chemicals present in cigarette smoke can come from other sources such as carpet, furniture, burning foods in the kitchen or diesel exhaust from outdoors. The OSHA permissible exposure limit for an eight-hour work day, 40 hours per week is 0.5 milligrams of nicotine per cubic meter.
Based on that standard, how do businesses that permit smoking measure up?
The Cancer Society tested the quality of air for workers in New York state in restaurants, bars and taverns, bowling centers and bingo halls. The results ranged from 20 nanograms of nicotine per cubic meter to 940 nanograms per cubic meter. A nanogram is .000001 of a milligram. The highest concentration of nicotine in the worst of these locations was still 532 times safer than the OSHA limit of 0.5 milligrams of nicotine per cubic meter.
In St. Louis Park, Minn., secondhand smoke concentrations, as measured by the environmental health department, ranged from a low of 500 times safer than OSHA standards at a cafe, to a worst case of 15.4 times safer than the OSHA guideline at a liquor store.
Regarding secondhand smoke, OSHA's acting Assistant Secretary Greg Watchman wrote, "Field studies of environmental tobacco smoke indicate that under normal conditions, the components in tobacco smoke are diluted below (safer than) existing Permissible Exposure Levels as referenced in the Air Contaminant Standard ... it would be very rare to find a workplace with so much smoking that any individual PEL would be exceeded."
Government officials accept OSHA air quality standards in factories where workers are exposed to welding smoke at concentrations much higher and more carcinogenic than secondhand tobacco smoke.
Yet because of the strong negative emotions associated with smoking, the risks of secondhand smoke are exaggerated well beyond what OSHA and even the Cancer Society have measured and shown to be hundreds of times safer than OSHA standards.
Although air quality testing in restaurants and bars does show trace amounts of nicotine, by OSHA standards it does not constitute a health hazard justifying a government smoking ban.