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Federal Indifference Keeps Safety Standards on Ice

Lawmakers could protect millions of people who use skating rinks with simple legislation. What's stopping them?

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The author drives a Zamboni ice resurfacer at the John and Dede Howard Ice Arena in St. Joseph, Mich. Propane-powered resurfacers, like the one pictured, can emit dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide in indoor facilities if not properly ventilated.(Dave Brown)

What if the government could craft a rule that would make millions of people safer, reduce carbon emissions, and come with the support of the industry it regulates? It isn't a pipe dream--three states have had it on the books for years--but there appears to be no momentum for such legislation on the federal level.

The rule? Mandatory testing of carbon-monoxide levels at indoor ice rinks. Much like a car left running in the garage, the emissions given off by ice resurfacers--better known as Zamboni machines after the name of their most popular brand--can be harmful if not properly ventilated. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued warnings about these carbon-monoxide and nitrogen-dioxide dangers, but only Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island have taken steps to keep skating rinks safe.

 

It's not as if the problem is a new one. In 2009, ESPN reported that 200 people had been sickened by carbon monoxide at ice rinks in a six-month span. Tests by the network found that nearly a third of rinks using fossil fuel-powered resurfacers had hazardous levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, or ultrafine particles. A 2011 feature by NBC's Today Show reported on one incident that saw 60 people hospitalized and found that more than 250 people had suffered from carbon-monoxide poisoning over the previous two years. Meanwhile, STAR Rinks, a nationwide industry organization, estimates there are 2,000 indoor rinks in the country.

Suzanne Condon, associate commissioner for health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, helped write that state's indoor ice-rink air quality law in 1997. Childhood asthma rates, she said, were the impetus for the regulation. "You used to be able to look down that row of kids on the bench [during youth hockey games], and probably a third of those kids were using inhalers," she said.

Condon isn't the only one who has seen the effect of testing laws. In Rhode Island, arena managers have been required to take daily carbon-monoxide readings since 1990, with mandated corrective actions for specific levels. That has boosted awareness of carbon-monoxide issues and helped rinks fix their problems, said Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the state's Department of Health. "After the law, I received no more complaints of headaches from hockey refs and figure-skating judges," he said.

 

The rules are even tougher in Minnesota. Earlier this year, it beefed up its air-quality standards for rinks, which have been on the books since 1973. The state now has the lowest allowed carbon-monoxide and nitrogen-dioxide levels in the country. Over the past year, the state has seen just 2 percent of ice rinks exceeding the mandated level, said Dan Tranter, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Health's Indoor Air Unit. That number has jumped to 10 percent since the stricter rule took effect in May, but Tranter expects it to come down once rinks grow accustomed to the new standard.

Air-quality compliance has been even more universal in Massachusetts, Condon said. "We tested a variety of rinks in the mid-'90s. We did see elevated levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide," she said. Now? "It's been at least a few years since we've even seen a level that was above the corrective action limit."

In the ESPN investigation, carbon-monoxide levels were found to be roughly 10 times higher in states that had no testing requirements. In non-testing states, 11 of the 22 rinks surveyed found carbon-monoxide levels exceeding Minnesota's best-in-the-nation standard of 20 parts per million. In the three states with testing requirements, none of 12 rinks tested exceeded nine parts per million. 

And it's not as if the public-safety benefits have come at the expense of an industry, nor have they met much opposition from those who are forced to comply. "By and large our arenas ... are accepting of the rules," Tranter said. "They want to ensure a safe environment for their patrons."

 

Arena managers backed that up. Almost a dozen operators in Rhode Island and Massachusetts responded to a survey distributed by the North East Ice Skating Managers Association for National Journal. None said the testing requirements had been a financial or logistical burden, and most said the standards were an important safety measure. Many expressed hope that other states would follow suit. Another manager in New Hampshire voluntarily paid for automated testing equipment to meet the Massachusetts standard, a move he said was made to address both safety and liability concerns.

STAR Rinks tells it members to establish testing standards, even if their state doesn't mandate monitoring. "[Carbon-monoxide and nitrogen-dioxide] poisoning are a real possibility at any ice rink that uses fossil-fueled ice resurfacers," its website says. "STAR strongly recommends that all ice rink operators implement an air quality monitoring program."

So why no appetite for federal legislation? "It's hard to understand," Condon said, adding that lack of awareness has resulted in little pressure for new rules.

In 2002, EPA tightened emissions standards for new resurfacers, but many machines predating that rule are still in operation--and even the improved models can cause problems in rinks that are not properly ventilated. EPA regulators did not respond to requests for comment; aides to environmental policymakers in the House indicated that no legislation is in the works.

But there may yet be hope for federal pressure on the issue. After several days of inquiry by NJ, an aide to a high-ranking senator who deals with environmental issues indicated a pair of senators contacted for this story are now planning to hold a hearing to investigate the issue.

Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano saw firsthand the difficulty of passing new regulations. Fasano made two attempts to pass ice-rink air quality standards while he was a Republican state senator in Florida. Both died in committee. At least one of those failures was the result of the state House failing to take up a companion measure, fueled by antiregulatory sentiment, said Fasano's former chief legislative assistant Greg Giordano. "It was a philosophical issue," Giordano said. "Leadership was saying, 'Do we want to give government even more ability to go into a private business [and regulate]?' ... I don't think anyone would have come out and said, 'Oh, I don't want children to be healthy.' "

Fasano and Giordano did claim a small victory when the troublesome local rink that had spurred the legislation switched to an electric resurfacer. That has become a trend in the industry, state regulators said, especially in testing-law states where making the switch can eliminate compliance issues. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, three quarters of the rink managers contacted for this story reported using electric resurfacers, and most cited air quality as a reason for the purchase.

"We have seen an increase in electric machine sales in those states with required testing," said Frank Zamboni, the grandson of the ice resurfacer's inventor and the executive vice president of Zamboni Co., the Canadian sister company of the Paramount, Calif.-based manufacturer.

While electric resurfacers are 35 percent to 40 percent more expensive, he said, cheaper operating costs can offset the initial purchase price. Zamboni declined to weigh in on potential legislation or regulation, but he did emphasize the critical need for air-quality testing. "It really isn’t our place to state a preference between voluntary and mandated emission testing; we simply feel that it is important that it be done on a daily basis while the ice rink is in operation," Zamboni said.

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