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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

When Ice Skating is not Good for your Health

Air Date: Week of

A combination of bad ventilation plus the noxious toxic fumes from gas-powered ice re-surfacers (a.k.a. Zambonis) can lead to respiratory problems for those who spend a lot of time in ice rinks. As Patrick Cox reports, improving the air quality is an expensive undertaking.


KNOY: And now, on with the show. You might think that skating around an ice rink is good exercise, and it is. But spending too much time on some of the nation's 800 or so ice rinks can also damage your health. A combination of bad ventilation and noxious toxic fumes from ice resurfacers can make for air rich in nitrogen dioxide, a chemical known to cause respiratory problems. Many of the nation's rinks are improving their air quality. But as Patrick Cox reports, it's an expensive undertaking.

(Skates clapping on ice; a man shouts, blows his whistle: "Let's go!")

COX: The Malden Catholic Lances, one of the region's hockey powerhouses, practice every weekday at the Ammons Horrigan O'Neal Rink in Boston. For more than 30 years this rink had little ventilation, and when a gasoline-powered machine, better known by its trade name Zamboni, came out to smooth the ice, the air got really fouled. But 2 years ago new ventilators were installed, and a new electric-powered Zamboni replaced the gas-burning one. Malden Catholic senior Ben Barbieri, who's been slapping pucks on this rink since he was 11, says he can smell the difference.

BARBIERI: I think it's better because before, you used to be able to smell, like the exhaust and everything. It used to really not be good, getting into your lungs and all that stuff. But it's easier to breathe now, so.

COX: Barbieri's experience is shared by many young skaters, according to Brian Kerans, who's with the Massachusetts state agency that runs this rink.

KERANS: A lot of kids who are active in our rinks were coming down with headaches. And this is something that actually is happening nationwide more and more. And a lot of the medical people were zeroing in on possibly the machinery that's in the rinks to groom the ice.

COX: So the state started taking steps to improve the air hockey players and other skaters breathe. State lawmakers passed first in the nation ice rink air quality standards. Then Massachusetts earmarked more than $2 million to improve the rinks it manages. Sixteen of the Boston area's 20 public rinks now use electric Zambonis.

(A Zamboni over the ice)

COX: Electric Zambonis have been available for about 10 years, but they still only corner less than 10% of the market. The reason could be that at $100,000 each, electric Zambonis cost almost twice as much as their gas-powered cousins. But the findings of a new study by the Harvard University School of Public Health may help spur sales. It found rinks that used electric Zambonis had acceptably low levels of nitrogen dioxide. Rinks that use propane and gasoline-powered Zambonis, says one of the study's authors, Jonathan Levy, had far dirtier air.

LEVY: They tended to be on average 100, 200 parts per billion. So, about, you know, 3 to 5 times higher than what you might typically be exposed to outdoors.

COX: The highest reading out of 19 rinks surveyed had nitrogen dioxide levels 30 times higher than clean air. Enough, says Levy, to cause bronchitis, chronic cough, and wheezing.

(Fans whirring)

COX: Skating rinks with the biggest air quality problems are most likely to be small, private operations, where profit margins are often slim. For owners who can't shell out the big bucks for a new, pollution-free Zamboni, the State of Massachusetts' Brian Kerans offers this advice.

KERANS: One thing that they should do at all times is leave the doors open, particularly when they're making a new sheet of ice. If they cannot afford an electric Zamboni and they are forced into purchasing a gasoline-driven, then having it properly tuned at all times is the key.

(A coach blows on a whistle)

COX: And rinks here in the United States may have some catching up to do. The latest international study on skating rink air quality found nitrogen dioxide levels in US rinks the highest out of 9 nations surveyed. For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox in Boston.



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