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Landmark Theatrical "Smoke and Fog" Study Completed
For the first time, a comprehensive study of the effects of theatrical smoke has set absolute limits on the amount of smoke that can be used safely on stages.

The report, jointly commissioned by Actors' Equity Association and the League of American Theatres and Producers, concluded that Actors are at risk when exposed to "elevated or peak levels of glycol smoke and mineral oil." However, it also noted that if exposure levels are kept below the limits established in the study, actors should "not suffer adverse impacts to their health or their vocal abilities."

"The best thing about the study" said Equity's Executive Director Alan Eisenberg, "is that for the first time, actors can be sure that when they step onto a Broadway stage, they won't be putting their health at risk from exposure to theatrical smoke. All Broadway and First Class Touring productions are now prohibited from using more smoke than the study's identified guidelines."

It is expected that the new exposure limits and usage guidelines will become the universal standard for the use of theatrical smoke on all stages presenting live theatre in the United States and internationally. "We will now address the issue of limits on smoke and fog in every Equity contract," stated Eisenberg. "Under the terms of the Production Contract, the guidelines will go into effect immediately."

The study, which took three years to complete, was jointly prepared by the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, a nationally recognized research institution, and the ENVIRON International Corporation. It included the participation of 439 Actors performing in 16 Broadway musicals during the 1997-1998 seasons. In four of those productions, Jekyll & Hyde, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera, the potential peak concentration of smoke exceeded the recommended levels. Of those shows, only Les Miserables and Phantom are still running.

According to Ken Greenwood, Equity's Senior Business Representative, "Those productions will now have to assess whether actors are subjected to peak exposure levels and whether the exposures can be reduced through changes in the blocking or choreography. If such changes cannot be made, an adjustment in the amount of smoke discharged will be necessary. We will also review exposure levels in any new production to make sure they are in compliance with the guidelines."

The Study's Methodology

The study was initiated in response to ongoing concerns by Actors that the use of smoke effects may have a deleterious impact on their health. The purpose of the study was to determine whether associations exist between exposure to theatrical smoke and health effects, taking into account the specific work environment and activities involved in a professional theatrical musical production. To address this issue, the study was divided into two primary components--an epidemiologic assessment and an exposure assessment.

The epidemiologic assessment included the collection of data from Actors regarding the symptoms they experienced as well as a medical evaluation to collect clinical data on a subgroup of Actors before and after a performance. The medical evaluation involved a video-endoscopy/video-stroboscopy, a computerized vocal test, perceptual vocal rating and pulmonary function testing.

The exposure assessment was done to measure levels of exposure over the course of an entire performance as well as peak levels of exposure at any given time. Exposure levels were determined by collecting personal breathing zone and general air samples from various locations in the theaters in both live performance and rehearsal settings. The air sampling data were combined with time and motion information developed for the productions to determine potential exposure to individual Actors.

The results were combined to develop conclusions regarding associations between exposures to theatrical effects and health effects in performers. Mount Sinai supervised the epidemiologic assessment and ENVIRON directed the exposure assessments.

Implementation of Study Results

The most precise method to ensure compliance with the guidelines is the use of sophisticated equipment to measure the precise amount of smoke present each time smoke is emitted on stage. This would guarantee, for example, that with respect to the use of glycol fog, an Actor's exposure would not exceed 40 milligrams per cubic meter, the limit identified in the study.

Equity and the League recognized that this might not be practical for all productions and asked ENVIRON to develop a protocol that could be used without such equipment and precise measurements. Under laboratory conditions, researchers tested a wide variety of the most commonly used smoke emitters to determine the length of time that peak level concentrations are present, relative to a subject's distance from the point of discharge on the equipment. Different types of glycol and mineral oil mixtures were also tested.

Accordingly, ENVIRON developed an "Equipment-Based Guideline" to allow a production to use effects without having to conduct its own stage-specific testing, provided the machines are used in accordance with manufacturer specifications, are well-maintained, and are functioning properly. The guideline ensures that by arranging the blocking and choreography so that an Actor is not within a high level zone during the specified times, the actor will avoid peak exposures.

Limits Set

The study recommends the following guidance levels with respect to glycols and mineral oil:

  • The use of glycols should be such that an Actors' exposure does not exceed 40 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3).
  • Mineral oil should be used in such a manner that an Actors' exposure does not exceed a peak concentration of 25 mg/m3.
  • For chronic exposures to mineral oil, the existing standards established for oil mists (5 mg/m3 as an eight-hour time-weighted average) should also be protective for Actors in theatrical productions.

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Smoke & Fog

Executive Summary

Smoke & Fog Guidelines

Guidance Presentation

Study Presentation

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