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Smokers Toxic to Bar, Restaurant Workers

Urine tests show how quickly carcinogen levels can rise

THURSDAY, June 28, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- It's a tip waiters and bartenders could do without.

A potent carcinogen rises quickly in restaurant and bar workers' urine after even brief exposures to secondhand smoke, a new U.S. study finds.

Concentrations of the cancer-causing toxin, called NNK, appear to rise steadily as bar workers' exposure continues, the researchers add.

NNK is "unsafe at any level," according to study lead author Michael Stark, a principal investigator in the health department of Multnomah County, Ore., which includes greater Portland.

"Even with a brief workplace exposure, we were able to detect increases in the level of NNK," Stark said. "On the average, there was a 6 percent increase per hour of work," he said.

His team was expected to report the findings in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Stark said he and his colleagues did the study because "there had been some prior research suggesting you could detect NNK in women and children in homes where workers had smoked."

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Policy Research Program, Stark and his colleagues focused on 52 nonsmoking employees of bars and restaurants that allowed smoking. They compared NNK levels in the workers' urine with those of 32 workers in areas where laws prohibit smoking in such establishments.

Three of every four employees working where smoking was permitted had detectable levels of NNK, compared to fewer than half of those in no-smoking establishments, the researchers found. NNK levels rose 6 percent per hour of workplace exposure, strengthening the notion that these concentrations do, indeed, reflect on-the-job intake levels.

But Stark pointed out that "this is workplace exposure that is completely avoidable."

Oregon has recently moved to ban smoking in workplaces, including bars and restaurants, he said. "Just last week, the legislature passed a law that goes into effect in January 2009," Stark said.

Oregon is the 22nd state to implement such a law, said Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

"The implications of this study are pretty obvious," McGoldrick said. "Any worker in a bar, restaurant or anyplace else, should be protected from the carcinogens in secondhand smoke. There is no reason for exemption for any class of workers, particularly in the recreation industry."

Fears that laws banning smoking in eating and drinking places would hurt businesses have been long ago disproved, McGoldrick said. "In fact, they seem to help business," he said. "About 80 percent of people are nonsmokers, and they prefer to be in a smoke-free environment."

Another report in the same issue of the journal noted that employers are increasingly likely to be held legally liable for exposing workers to secondhand smoke, even in localities where laws permit workplace smoking.

The legal analysis, from the Public Health Institute in Oakland, Calif., found that workers harmed by secondhand smoke are turning to worker compensation laws, state and federal disability laws for redress. It is now employer's responsibility "to provide a safe workplace" to have smoking banned where they work, the researchers wrote.

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute can tell you more about secondhand smoke.

SOURCES: Michael Stark, Ph.D., principal investigator, Multnomah County Health Department, Portland, Ore; Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Washington, D.C.; August 2007, American Journal of Public Health
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