Zooming in on Zambonis

On thin ice: how hockey arenas are polluting our lungs and the planet


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Q Do ice resurfacing machines in hockey arenas contribute to asthma and air pollution?

A I must admit I’m kind of a dunce when it comes to last night’s game or back episodes of He Shoots, He Scores, but we can talk shop about what makes hockey arenas a hazard to you and the environment.

First there”s the more direct pollution that happens right in the rink. Not the body odour wafting from sweaty players, but emissions from those big ice-resurfacing machines. A late-90s Harvard study found that whether they run on natural gas or propane, they all produce hazardous nitrogen dioxide. Propane-powered machines pump out 206 parts per billion, while natural gas types average 132 ppb, enough, said the researchers, to trigger asthma and respiratory infections in kids putting in heavy ice time.

Interestingly, the main problem isn”t the machines themselves, but many arenas” total failure to maintain these babies. If they were cars, they”d fail their Drive Clean emissions test, and, as you can imagine, any vehicle that”s gone 10 years without seeing a mechanic will have some serious black soot coughing out of its tailpipes. Hound your rink manager about ensuring that its Zamboni or Olympia resurfacer is being well kept.

The problem is only compounded if the building isn”t properly ventilated. Make sure the arena”s getting the fresh air it needs.

If the community”s got the budget for a new model, Zamboni and Olympia make near-zero-emissions electric resurfacers from $115,000, but they aren’t yet used by any local arenas. Also, keep in mind that most new resurfacers have near-zero-emissions engines with pollution-curbing catalytic converters.

Still, without upkeep, any of these will end up belching fumes on the rink after a few years.

If you’re wondering whether chemicals are used in the ice-resurfacing process itself, the answer, according to those in the biz, is no. However, about 80 to 120 gallons of hot water are used per session, and smells can come from the chlorine in municipal tap water. If your lungs are sensitive, you could find rinks in towns with heavily chlorinated water irritating.

Beyond the rink-side pollution produced in arenas, we can”t forget about about all the nasty emissions spewing out of coal plants just to power these centres of camaraderie and giant foam fingers. Keeping the ice at -4°C and the building at a crispy 17°C all year round in rickety old rinks is hard enough. Throw in giant overhead lights and you”ve got yourself a gargantuan hydro bill. In fact, according to Ontario Hydro Technologies, the nation”s 3,650 curling and hockey arenas suck back over 1 billion kWH of electricity every year! That translates into about 15 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year!

As you can imagine, there’s a good deal of financial pressure on rinks to bring those bills down, so many have undertaken energy retrofits. Ask your rink about what it’s done or plans to do. Tell them that renovations can mean a 40 per cent cut in electricity costs.

Off the rink, try to limit your family’s fossil fuel tally by either hopping on transit or carpooling to the arena.

And instead of buying brand new gear (especially for kids, who’ll outgrow it in a few seasons), head to Play It Again Sports (Gerrard East, Lawrence East, Yonge and others). You’ll find second-hand hockey and figure skates, goalie pads and other equipment at a fraction of retail prices.

Got a question?

Send your green consumer queries toecoholic@nowtoronto.com

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