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 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, which number roughly 2,000 nationwide. Much like a car left running in the garage, the emissions given off by some ice resurfacers — often called 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 skaters at rinks safe from these gases.
It's not as if the problem is new. In 2009, ESPN reported that carbon monoxide had sickened 200 people 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 had suffered from carbon-monoxide poisoning over the previous two years.
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.
In Rhode Island, arena managers have been required to take daily carbon-monoxide readings since 1990, with mandatory 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, which have been on the books since 1973, for rinks. 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.
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 an email question 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.
STAR Rinks, a nationwide industry organization, tells its members to establish testing standards, even if their state doesn't mandate monitoring.
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 a Senate aide said two senators plan to hold a hearing to investigate the issue. They did not provide details.
Regulation or not, some ice-rink managers have decided the simplest way to keep skaters safe is to switch to electric resurfacers. That has become a trend in testing-law states, some regulators said, where making the switch can eliminate compliance issues. "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.