Federal Indifference Keeps Safety Standards on Ice

EDMONTON, AB - NOVEMBER 30:  A general view of the skating rink inside the West Edmonton Mall photographed on November 30, 2011 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Oct. 2, 2013, 6:21 p.m.

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.

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