Smoke Free Apartment Buildings? ... Is there a market?

My good friend Alicia, her husband, and 4- year-old daughter, Emily, have just moved back to Los Angeles and are apartment hunting. Their special problem is that Emily is among the 10% of the population who have respiratory problems. In her case, it's asthma. Alicia is trying very hard to find an apartment which will be totally smokefree because Emily's medicine doesn't work if she breathes even the smallest amount of smoke.

People who smoke need to be able to rent apartments. People who don't smoke need to rent them. But Alicia knows that tobacco smoke can't be depended upon to stay in the apartment of the person who smokes so she's looking for a totally smokefree building.

According to John Howard, M.D., Chief of the California Division of Occupation Safety and Health (CAL OSHA), "Tobacco smokes travels from its point of generation in a building to all other areas of the building. It has been shown to move through light fixtures, through ceiling crawl spaces, and into and out of doorways."

In other words, secondhand smoke can leak through electrical outlets, openings around pipes under sinks, and through seams in the construction such as around the floor/wall junctures, and between the floor panels under the carpeting, into the common walls and ceiling areas, and into adjacent apartment and condo living areas.

In 1993, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a risk assessment which classified Environmental Tobacco Smoke as a Group A carcinogen known to cause cancer in humans with no safe level of exposure. In addition, secondhand smoke in any amount can be a severe irritant for people with respiratory problems or heart disease.

Again in the words of Dr. Howard of CAL OSHA, Once exposed, building occupants are at risk for the irritant, allergic, acute and chronic cardiopulmonary and carcinogenic adverse health effects which are known to be associated with environment tobacco smoke (ETS) exposure."

A recent letter in the Apartment Life column in the Los Angeles Times came from a couple complaining that they were breathing secondhand smoke which was coming through the air duct system in their Los Angeles area apartment. They noted that the renter living above them was a chain smoker, and when the heating or air conditioning systems were working, smoke was somehow transmitted from his unit to theirs.

When it was discovered that the heating /cooling units were defective and leaking carbon monoxide, they were replaced by the owners of the building. In addition, air filtration units were provided for the bed and living rooms of the worried couple, but even after all of those remedies, they reported that second-hand smoke continued to be a problem.

A former mechanical contractor living in Lompac responding to the Apartment Life column stated that many California jurisdictions have adopted Section 1206(c) of the state mechanical code which requires that Return air from one dwelling unit shall not be discharged into another dwelling unit through the cooling system." It is possible to provide separate ventilation to individual units with air being exhausted to the outside from each separate unit, but in an existing building this could become very expensive.

Other remedies which have been suggested to deal with the problem of secondhand smoke migration include installing an electrostatic filter in the smoker's apartment. But that solution will only trap particles and not the gaseous elements of the tobacco smoke.

California's new Smokefree Workplace Law, Assembly Bill 13, now known as 6404.5 of the California State Labor Code, only regulates workplaces including restaurants, hotels and shopping malls. It does not apply to residential structures, which include apartment buildings.

In the meantime, public opinion about smoking and secondhand smoke has changed. A 1993 survey by the Claremont Institute for Economic Policy Studies showed that 81% of Californians polled supported smokefree restaurants while 87% supported elimination of smoking in workplaces. A majority of those responding to the poll believed that secondhand smoke is a greater threat to health than other environmental hazards.

The nonsmoking public is now 90% of the population when you include children. Less than 20% of California's adult population is still smoking and approximately 70-90% of them want to quit according to the American Lung Association.

So many workplaces and public places in California are now smokefree that people are getting used to breathing smokefree air where they work and play. Now, if they smell secondhand smoke in their own apartment, condo or townhouse, the discovery can be very disturbing.

Perhaps, the time is right for a new service to be offered to apartment owners and renters, a Smokefree Apartment House Registry. This could consist of a database of apartment houses, condos and townhouses for rent where individual buildings are totally smokefree.

There is currently no law restricting an apart- ment owner from offering a smokefree build- ing on a voluntary basis. There is also no law restricting an apartment owner from advertis- ing smokefree rental housing. Some apartment owners have already designated their buildings as smokefree and could provide information through the Smokefree Apartment House Registry to owners wishing to make a change.

Smokefree apartment buildings would be a tremendous boon to persons with asthma, heart disease and/or other chronic illnesses who especially need smokefree living accommodations. Young health-conscious families with children would also be attracted to these kinds of accommodations.

The Registry could be marketed to real estate professional, voluntary health organizations such as the American Lung Association, the Heart Association and the American Cancer society, to health professionals, health insurance companies and government agencies.

For more information, contact Esther Schiller, the project's coordinator at PH: 805/499-8921, FAX: 805/499-6661,
or write PO Box 246, Newbury Park, CA 91319.

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