Health News Digest

December 27, 2004

Figure Eight: Danger at the Ice Rink

By  Michael D. Shaw

People do not typically associate illness with popular wintertime events: ice skating, hockey and other seasonal sports that make this time of year particularly fun. But the use of ice resurfacing machines—Zamboni is the industry leader within this field—presents a potential health risk to people who use indoor facilities for the very activities mentioned previously. And, though some within the media may suggest otherwise, this topic is certainly worthy of attention, not unreasonable alarmism.

Much of the public is seemingly unaware that environmental problems—namely, challenges related to ventilation and good air quality—exist with the use of these Zamboni machines. None of which is to suggest the machines themselves are harmful. Hardly. There is, however, a degree of prudence that must be exercised whenever emissions, enclosed spaces, and human beings intersect. The emphasis should be on prevention, those easy steps—including the monitoring of various gases (carbon monoxide, chief among them)—that will safeguard the public from wild panic.

To be fair, some amount of concern is understandable: a Zamboni machine recently exploded at an ice rink in Minnesota, triggered by leaking propane from the machine’s own tank. People inside the rink escaped without injury, but the timing of the explosion, given the seasonal nature of this story, was quite eerie. Still, Zamboni makes a good product, but like any complex machine, it deserves proper monitoring and regular maintenance. Such measures would virtually eliminate the cases, reported each year, of exposure to carbon monoxide, and the attendant nausea, respiratory ailments, headaches, dizziness, and fainting.

I must repeat that these incidents, which are thoroughly preventable, are not the fault of ice resurfacing machines. Just as an oven can itself be deadly, provided there is no ventilation and sustained exposure to harmful gases, a Zamboni can be equally “dangerous” within the same context. But circumstances dictate reality; and the fact is—notwithstanding some catastrophic error or unheard of incompetence—all of the ailments described above are easily avoidable. My own work within the field of toxic gas detection for Interscan Corporation confirms this statement, that the public can enjoy these festive wintertime sports without fear of potentially serious health effects.

The first step toward enhanced safety—for ice rink operators and patrons alike—is the increased use of monitoring devices that can measure the amount of carbon monoxide present within these buildings. This action is essential because, when combined with rigorous exertion (which hockey or ice skating obviously require), exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide can have significant short-term consequences. Let us also remember that monitoring is a tool, not a solution. Monitoring will alert one to a problem with air quality, but that problem still has to be dealt with. This brings us to step two—proper ventilation.

The importance of adequate air changes—good ventilation by another name—cannot be overemphasized. From toxic mold to carbon monoxide poisoning, many modern ailments are the result of “tight building syndrome,” a misguided effort to save energy above all else, including public health. As air is recirculated, toxins can build up, silently affecting an unknowing and literally captive audience. Whatever happened to good old fresh air?

The third step would be the enforcement of common sense work rules, requiring that an appropriate time interval elapse before patrons are let back into the rink, following a resurfacing job. Ideally, monitoring of the air should be done at the end of this interval, as a final check before re-occupancy.

Beyond creating a healthier environment for their customers, consider the immense PR benefit rink operators would enjoy, if these affordable steps became part of an organization’s practices. Media would applaud such behavior, and consumers would second the sentiment.

Ice skating and hockey are beloved activities, sports we should not fear or avoid. But the public must be offered a sense of environmental safety as well, a guarantee that the air is free from harmful compounds that could ruin these recreational opportunities. And, rather than characterizing the Zamboni as an evil icon (which it most certainly is not), let us monitor its use. The benefits—the rewards for people who genuinely enjoy everything winter offers—are too great for us to squander. A little monitoring means a season of joy.