Secondhand Smoke Levels at Five Major Airports Endanger Everyone, Study Finds

Some airports are exempt from state smoking bans

Designated smoking areas at airports fail to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. (Photo: Dennis Johnson/Getty Images)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

Nonsmokers usually steer clear of restaurants and other public places that permit smoking. But if you're traveling over the busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend, you may not be able to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

A report released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that five of the nation's 29 largest airports allow smoking in designated areas. However, confining smoking to those areas doesn't prevent exposure to high levels of tobacco smoke throughout the airport.

The five large airports that have designated smoking areas are Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Denver International Airport, and Salt Lake City International Airport. More than 110 million passenger boardings—about 15 percent of all U.S. air travel—occurred at these five airports last year, according to the CDC.

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Researchers decided to measure the impact of designated smoking areas throughout the airports. They measured specific types of particulate matter that are markers for secondhand smoke. Measurements were taken at 45 sites in airports with designated smoking areas and four sites in smoke-free airports. The measurements in the airports with smoking areas were taken inside the actual smoking area, one meter adjacent to the smoking area and at five randomly selected boarding gates where smoking is not permitted.

The study showed that secondhand smoke directly outside the designated smoking areas was five times higher than the particulate levels found in smoke-free airports. The levels of toxins found inside the smoking areas were 23 times higher than in smoke-free airports.

Previous studies have demonstrated that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke is harmful, co-author of the study, CDC epidemiologist Brian King, told TakePart.

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"Secondhand smoke in airports affects different groups of people," he says. "It affects travelers, adults as well as children. It also affects employees, such as bar and restaurant employees who work shifts and the workers responsible for cleaning these areas."

In 2006, the Surgeon General issued a report stating that there is no safe level of secondhand tobacco smoke. Secondhand smoke exposure causes heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults and several health conditions in children.

"Efforts to ventilate or separate nonsmokers from smokers or clean the air are not effective mechanisms. This study affirms that," King says. "Smoking permitted in airports is not healthy either for the individuals who work there or for the traveler."

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Smoking was banned on all U.S. domestic and international commercial airline flights through a series of federal laws adopted from 1987 to 2000. But there is no federal policy requiring airports to be smoke-free. The CDC defines a smoke-free law to be comprehensive if it prohibits smoking in all indoor areas of private workplaces, restaurants and bars—with no exceptions.

Comprehensive smoke-free laws have become more common, King says, with 26 states and the District of Columbia enacting such policies.

But, he notes, "Some of these states have exemptions for certain areas. That is the case in Utah and Colorado. These are states with comprehensive policies, but they have special exemptions for airports. That is a problem because airports are public places and worksites."

It's not clear what forces have led to airport nonsmoking exemptions, King says.

"We known the tobacco industry has promoted the implementation of some of these smoking rooms," he says. "So there is an interest by certain groups to keep smoking rooms in these airports."

While the new study looked only at the nation's largest airports, some small and medium-sized airports permit smoking in designated areas too.

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The issue of secondhand smoke exposure has cropped up before in the air travel industry. In 1991, the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute brought a class action lawsuit against the tobacco industry for damages from diseases and deaths caused to non-smoking flight attendants from exposure to secondhand smoke in airplane cabins. A settlement was reached in 1997.

Question: Should smoking be banned at all airports? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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