A firsthand brush with secondhand smoke

An acrid smell of cigarette smoke filtered into our New York office. One of the reporters said her eyes stung at the end of the day. My skin felt like it had some foul coating.

But none of us were smokers. So where was it coming from?

As it turns out, new tenants - a law firm - had just moved in below us, and among its employees were smokers, disregarding building rules against smoking inside the 60-story tower.

What could be done about it?

First, we went to the building management, Newmark & Co. They sent a maintenance worker to the lawyers' offices.

The smoking continued.

Then, the building manager, Dennis Guerin, a no-nonsense kind of guy, went to their offices.

"I read them the riot act," he reported. But the smoking continued. Mr. Guerin muttered something about smokers being a nuisance.

Then we went to the Department of Health, filing complaint number K101049. An inspector - badge number 096 - arrived one morning.

The lawyers, of course, weren't smoking at that moment. In order to file another complaint, we would have to wait 30 days, according to department rules.

The smoking continued. One day, we called the building management as the smell of smoke entered our space.

This time, the management sent a fire inspector to the law firm for an inspection. The presence of the badge-wielding official had a real effect.

"They really wigged out- they accused us of Gestapo-like tactics," said Guerin.

The smoking lessened. Now, it was just twice a day - right after lunch and late in the workday. We started to keep a log.

Guerin reported that the law firm was thinking about installing an expensive ventilation system.

By now the senior management of Newmark was involved. Guerin installed a new digital thermostat in our office. The idea: to keep the room fan running during business hours to "pressurize" the office, forcing in outside air.

Then, on May 23, William Cohen, an executive vice president of Newmark, arrived. "We just want to let you know we're not ignoring you," he said.

He described how Newmark, a large real estate firm with holdings all over the United States, is always struggling with people who sneak smokes in stairwells or bathrooms.

It can be a constant battle to keep an office building's lobby from filling up with fumes.

Not long ago, someone stuffed a cigarette into an air vent in our building, he said, causing a fire hazard.

"I have this with all my buildings," he said.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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