Indoor Air Quality testing

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

IAQ testing was one of the most productive (from the view-point of the tobacco companies) and lucrative (from the view-point of the IAQ testing companies) of all the scam engaged in by the cigarette companies in their efforts to keep customers smoking. IAQ testing companies (aka 'Ventilation companies') were set up, supposedly to test the quality of the air in offices, and the ventilation systems used in offices and public buildings, when workers complained of discomfort and ill health from the high rates of smoking. This followed the development of office space without opening windows, where indoor air quality was determined solely by the air conditioners -- and during the energy crisis of the 1970s building owners tended to keep the rate of exchange of indoor and outdoor air as low as possible (without admitting this to workers0

This IAQ testing industry emerged from this convergence of factors - specifically measure the particulate and noxious gas components of the office air, and to inspect the machinery, roof-top tanks and air-ducting for signs of contamination.

This HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) scam developed in the decade following 1985. It generated millions of dollars in testing fees, and many dozens of IAQ testing companies around the world -- although the original company AVCA/HBI remained dominant on both a US and a global scale, (See ACVA, HBI and ACVA/HBI (Doc Index))

IAQ - Indoor Air Quality
ETS - Environmental Tobacco Smoke
HVAC - Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning
IFAQ - In-Flight Air Quality
SBS - Sick Building Syndrome
VOC - Volatile Organic Compounds
CO & CO2 - Carbon Monoxide/Dioxide
NMA - National Manufacturers Assocs (cigs)
CTR - US Council for Tobacco Research
TRC - Tobacco Research Committee
TAC - UK Tobacco Advisory Committee
ASFC - Swiss tobacco manufacturers assoc.

The scam

In essence, the scam was developed by the tobacco industry with the active participation of proprietor Gray Robertson and his company ACVA (Later known as Healthy Buildings International (HBI). It involved the tobacco industry acting as an agent for ACVA/HBI:

  1. An office building owner or renter, harrassed by complaints from non-smokers to constant respiratory and eye-watering problems, would contact his local branch of the Tobacco Institute. Everyone assumed these problems resulted from tobacco smoke in the air and inadequate air-conditioning filtration or air-exchange rates needed to handle the smoke.
  2. The Tobacco Institute representative would suggest that his problem would more likely be "Sick Building Syndrome" rather than second-hand smoke. They would say that the air quality needed to be checked, and the ducting system inspected, since in many cases the problem didn't derive from tobacco smoke. He would point out that occupants could die if the cause of an occupant's illness was the deadly legionella bacteria which caused Legionnaire's Disease. (Legionella pneumophilia)
  3. The Tobacco Institute (or Philip Morris/RJ Reynolds) would then recommend Gray Robertson and HBI (or one of the many competitors which emerged when employees woke up to how the scam operated). They would provide a secret subsidy which allowed the company to conduct the investigation at a reasonably low rate to the building owner/renter.
  4. The investigation would involve a) testing of the air for 'particulates' (those minute solid components which make smoke visible) b) testing for levels of gasses (carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, etc) c) sampling and testing water in cooling towers on buildings d) inspection of the inside of ducting for build-up of dust and fibres (and testing for possible contamination).
  5. A report would be prepared which would exonerate tobacco smoke as the cause of the problems, and recommend boosting the air-exchange rate, regular cleaning and maintenance, newer and better air-filters, and often complete upgrades of the whole system with the installation of special duct inspection ports.

How they gamed the process

If the companies had been honest and the HVAC services conducted by professionals, the procedures outlined above could have been valid. There were many old, badly maintained air-conditioning systems, especially those retro-fitted to older buildings. However in the hands of an entrepreneurial con-man like Robertson (and the many others who followed his lead) it was easy to manipulate the process for greater financial reward.

  • The Tobacco Institute paid these companies a healthy monthly retainer, and a per-job rate, to ensure that low levels of tobacco smoke were always reported. It was essential to them that smoking during work hours wasn't restricted.
  • If the particulate-testing equipment was positioned near the building entrance, or in the path of fresh-air ingress points, then the count would always be low. And since particulate count was the main indicator of tobacco smoke being the problem -- rather than stale air or other gas-phase problems --this kept the tobacco industry happy and ensured that their recommendations and cash-subsidies kept flowing.
  • if the particulate count was still too high, the report would pass through the hands of the company principals or senior managers who would adjust them downwards with a pencil and eraser.
  • they would also measure the gases (collected for laboratory testing) and report on the nicotine levels. However nicotine in air (or in humans) breaks down to a substance called cotinine -- so low nicotine levels are meaningless (but they impress the customer). In other words they measured for, and reported on the wrong substance.
  • Maintenance/upgrades: HBI/ACVA also sold duct inspection ports and air filters, and took payments from the sheet-metal and maintenance companies that installed them. They probably also took kick-backs for recommendations on equipment and upgrades also.
  • Conferences: HBI staff and executives, and those from other IAQ testing companies, were also paid to attend seminars/conferences and give papers about IAQ testing, stressing the need to stop 'scapegoating' tobacco smoke at the problem, and promoting the idea that buildings were often sick. They also were handled by a specialist PR company, Fleishman-Hillyard in America, to circulate on media tours to talk on radio and TV, and to the press. These services were well funded. They were also done in other countries,
  • Publications: Gray Robertson and others prepared (often with tobacco industry help) 'learned scientific articles' which were sent to appropriate professional, scientific and medical journals, HBI also published a give-away 'waiting room' glossy magazine which promoted the tobacco industry line.
  • Legislative/law: The staff and executives of these companies were also called upon (and well paid for their services) to provide witness services for the tobacco industry at Congress, State Legislatures, local ordinance hearings, and in produce liability cases.

Other IAQ Testing companies

In the USA


Air-conditioning companies promoted the idea that a comfortable quality of indoor air is possible if the equipment is adequate and well maintained, whether or not the building was full of smokers. This is a self-proving thesis -- provided you aren't paying the bills.

Said to be a subsidiary of HBI in Europe

These were interconnected companies which shared the control of Carl-Gustav Pettersson. He appears to have been the manager of the Scandinavian building firm (Anders) Nisses Building Development Company which has been promoting itself as a Healthy Building constructor. It was based in Sweden, but with a London subsidiary. Nisses later de-merged into Alvik Strand Millbank and Nisses.
REDAD was the private IAQ testing firm Pettersson ran with his wife in London. There is some dispute over Healthy Buildings Ltd. It is either the licensed operator of HBI in the UK, or (reverse) the company who's name was purchased by Gray Robertson to replace the name ACVA. Nisses and ACVA/HBI certainly had a business relationship.
[There was also a Alviks-Nisses AB, a real-estate company in Stockholm]

[aka Svenska Flaekt] This was the largest ventilation company in Sweden - a multinational subsidiary of Brown Bovery. It was originally a hostile competitor to ACVA/HBI and was not considered a friend of the tobacco industry. However it changed its mind: Flaekt became a franchisee of ACVA/HBI and the principle promoter of pseudo IAQ testing in Sweden.

  • HIROSS Holdings Ltd (originally known as Atlas Copco) (UK and Italy)

It was a manufacturer of indoor air filtering and processing equipment, and it specialised in treating compressed air rooms, and conditioning computer rooms. It claimed to have developed a new system of air conditioning and had numerous installations in Europe and the Far East. After a management buy-out, the holding company was formed with subsidiaries in Austria, Buffalo NY, and Geneva, Switzerland, and with a research center in Padova Italy. The tobacco industry's main dealings were with Fernando H Fuenzalida

  • TCO (Swedish white collar union)

The union collaborated with the tobacco industry, but advocated a more open involvement and greater honesty. It was involved in many of the tobacco-associated conferences: Health Buildings 88 (Stockholm 1988), High Tech Buildings (London June 1989); IAQ Toronto (July/Aug 1990) and various smaller IAQ conferences "intended for the information of various European trade unions". They also promoted an improvement in filter performance to improve IAQ.

Allies other than tobacco

The above processes were also beneficial to companies, industries and unions not directly linked with tobacco.

  • The air conditioning installation and maintenance industry had a number of associations which actively promoted the same 'Sick Building Syndrome' scare campaigns and contributed to some of the services and legislative policies being promoted by the IAQ testing companies.
  • The unions associated with air-conditioning, mainly the Sheet Metal Workers union, were also active supporters, as were the unions who had workers in manufacturing and the distribution and retailing sides of the business. They, in turn, influences the AFL-CIO, and many other unions. Some union supporters simply saw this in 'personal rights' terms; the right to smoke at work. The tobacco industry set up a special committee of labor-oriented lawyers under the banner of the Labor Management Committee to generate and foster this support.
  • Building owners, renters and managers had a number of organisations which came under tobacco industry control, often by back-handed payments to their officials. The BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association) and BCIA (Business Council on Indoor Air" were run as tobacco industry subsidiaries at various time, as were many other similar organisations around the world. They all received 'donations' and 'grants' for similar support.
  • Standards setting for indoor air quality (IAQ) around the world came to depend on those set in the USA by ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration & Airconditioning Engineers) and it became a major pre-occupation of the tobacco industry and its IAQ testing allies to get their 'experts' onto the key committees setting these standards. Elia Sterling of TDS Ltd. was a major influence here.
Legionella and Radon
Legionnaires' Disease, caused by Legionella bacteria, is a form of pneumonia that can be fatal. The bacteria are found in natural water bodies such as rivers, lakes, creeks and hot springs. They are also found in spas, potting mix, warm water systems and artificial systems that use water for cooling, heating or industrial processes, such as cooling towers. The main danger today is from potting mix.

A person may catch Legionnaires' disease by breathing the mists that contain the bacteria, but you cannot catch it from another person or by drinking contaminated water. It was estimated that 20,000 Americans get a mild infection (like a common cold) from one of the 22 forms of Legionalla bacteria every year. Today severe cases are treated with antibiotics.

Although this is a common bacteria in the environment, only a few who come in contact with the bacteria become seriously infected, and the risk with healthy children and young adults is very low. Usually few adults exposed to the concentrated bacteria develop a diagnosed disease, and those at greater risk, are: (a) those over 50 years of age (b) Smokers (c) People with chronic illness (lung and kidney disease and diabetes) (d) People with impaired immune system.
Radon, became a major concern during the Cold War era when there was a heightened awareness of nuclear radiation dangers. The gas is found naturally in areas of granite country and it can accumulate in basements, etc. Radon daughters are known to increase the risk of lung cancer, and the gas is synergistic with tobacco smoke. The tobacco industry found it useful to promote the dangers of radon, as part of their IAQ testing scam.
Ozone became a scare for a short time. Then people became aware that the problem was with the CFCs in the atmosphere depleting the ozone layer. It was too little that was the problem, not too much.
Asbestos and glass fibre, both were known to cause lung cancer, and both were highly inert. The problem is that they are so inert the body can't break them down and eliminate them. And the smaller the fibre, the more danger it represents, because the active effect is physical -- for very tiny (beyond visual size) to penetrate lung cells and interfere with multiplication of the DNA (larger fibres kill the cells). Asbestos fibre inhalation is known to be highly synergistic with smoking as a cause of lung-cancer, but glass fibre remains only suspect in a very few cases (probably because of size).
Formaldehyde: The use of plastic foam insulation in some buildings created problems with the release of formaldehyde: this was a legitimate, but possibly minor concern. However it brought the chemical and plastics industries into cooperative agreements with tobacco and the IAQ testing companies.
Photocopies: The early office copying machines use fluid chemicals which vaporized and could be smelled by anyone entering the office copy-room. This became another (and legitimate) cause of concern.

History of IAQ testing

Following World War II smoking became very common, and office buildings began to depend on air-conditioning. Prior to this, most offices had windows which could be opened, but in the USA and regions like Scandinavia (followed by the rest of the developed world), office building began to be sealed (air-tight windows) and rely on air-conditioning. This created costs when the energy crisis hit in the 1970s and the world faced engineered petroleum shortage and electricity price hikes; companies reduced their rate of exchange between indoor and outdoor air to reduce heating and cooling costs, and by the 1980s many of the early water-cooled rooftop units hadn't been cleaned or the ducting maintained.

Then in 1976 there was an outbreak of a severe bacterial respiratory disease among members of the American Legion attending a Convention in Philadelphia. It became world news because Gray Robertson formed a partnership with Peter Binnie to create ACVA (Air Conditioning and Ventilation Associates) in the early 1980s in Britain, and brought the company to the USA in 1981. Robertson had been the Technical Sales Director of Winton Laboratories in the UK, and Binnie had been the Technical Director. The laboratory had developed a new air-filtering material, and it sold easily accessible duct inspection ports. ACVA arrived in the USA with the rights to sell this equipment. Binnie and Robertson both claimed to have training in biomedical research (it is likely that Binnie did).

ACVA and HBI The company originally known as ACVA spawned two branches (Atlantic and Pacific) and many subsidiaries, and then became Health Buildings International (HBI) in 1990. It was the dominant air-testing company among many which are generically known as 'IAQ testing' or 'ventilation companies' in tobacco parlance. They conduct indoor air quality (IAQ) testing and remedial work -- both maintenance and replacement of air conditioning equipment.

The tobacco industry provided financial and promotional support in return for referring business following the receipt of inquiries about workplace smoking and associated passive smoking (ETS) health hazards. Agreements made with the US Tobacco Institute and the cigarette companies (with offices around the world) included the provision that the ventilation company would always find major sources of air contamination other than just tobacco smoke and promote the need for offices to upgrade and maintain their air-conditioning system and increase the rate of exchange of air.

For this reason, they invented and promoted the idea of 'sick building syndrome' to explain the symptoms suffered by office workers due to poor quality air, filled with second-hand smoke and a few other minor pollutants. These symptoms had been exaggerated following the 1973 oil and energy crisis, where building owners and renters reduced air-exchange in order to save on heating and cooling the buildings.

ACVA/HBI was the most active and successful of these bribed ventilation companies, and it became a global operator with European, Asian and Australian subsidiaries. Peter Binnie dropped out of the company and returned to the UK in 1990, and Simon Turner, the son of the main UK tobacco industry lobbyist, joined the company. At much the same time Robertson changed the name to Healthy Buildings International. He also began to license his system internationally with an Australian-Asian subsidiary run from Sydney by his brother Joseph Robertson and he acquired corporate associates in the UK, Scandinavia and Europe. Later, Jeff Seckler a key executive, attempted to start up a rival operation in the USA, using blackmail when Robertson objected. When fired, Seckler turned whistleblower. Also a key staff organiser, Reginald B. Simmons left the company and was deposed in a court case, exposing the way the company operated.

Robertson went on to establish (with $10 m in Philip Morris funding) a free-magazine translated into many languages and distributed internationally to building owners. They also set up conferences and seminars, and its executives and senior staff had the free services of Fleisman-Hillard (PR) to conduct Tobacco Institute-funded media tours promoting the messages that 'sick building syndrome' was the problem, and that 'tobacco smoke is only a minor component'.

Not all US ventilation companies were corrupt. The honest companies generally advocated "source control" [removal of the source of contamination --generally tobacco smoke] rather than just "dilution" [increasing the filtration and boosting air-exchange rates]. Obviously, in many cases, both changes were needed.

History of ACVA/HBI

Extract from a 1985 speech by Gray Robertson:
ACVA Atlantic Inc. was incorporated in 1981 to market the technology that the founders of ACVA helped develop whilst working with Winton Laboratories in England. The co-founders of ACVA, i.e. myself and Mr.Peter Binnie were respectively the lnternational Technical Sales Director and the Technical Director of Winton. [Note: This is in conflict with Robertson's own C/V]

Whilst at Winton, Peter Binnie and I were specifically involved in the study of internal pollution problems throughout industry such as asbestos, heavy metals etc., in dealing with cross infection problems in hospitals and operating rooms, in identifying bacterial and fungal problems in libraries, museums, schools, medical laboratories and general offices. We developed the reputation as international trouble-shooters and have been called in to investigate numerous sick buildings throughout Europe, Scandinavia and Asia and in particular in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

We attributed the key reason for our success to the fact that we recognized the need to harness the diverse talents of Air Condtioning Engineers, Microbiologists and Chemists, three different disciplines unused to working together. [2]

ACVA moved to the USA in 1981 principally because they had dealer-rights to the Winton port-inspection equipment.

IAQ Related Societies


North America

Witness Identification Companies


  • HORECA - French for International Organisation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations (umbrella)

United Kingdom


  • SCANVAC -- Scandinavian Federation of HVAC Engineers (President, Prof P Ole Fanger) is the parent organization for the six HVAC associations in Scandinavia. (NORVAC SWEDEVAC DANVAK ICEVAC, etc for Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) It was founded in 1947 and the six associations have about 20,000 members and a newsletter which is sent to 800 key addresses throughout the world. Halor Roslad, editor [4]
  • FINVAC -- Finland HVAC -- Karl Rahkamo (became mayor) Antti Kantola President [5]


Technologies used

  • Electrostatic precipitation of particles (smoke) in the air. The precipitation was measured by weight.
  • Cambridge filter - trapping of particulates by suction through the filter. Particulates could later be detected and estimated in a laboratory
  • Vibrating crystal techniques: A crystal was made to vibrate at a very precise frequency by an oscillating electronic circuit. The physical vibration was also captured by a feedback mechanism and compared to the original signal. If particulates settled on the crystal, the frequency would change minutely and this difference could be measured and converted into a reading of particulates in the atmosphere.

PASS systems These are Portable Air Sampling Systems which were developed (at least partly by the tobacco industry - RJ Reynolds) to fit into a brief-case. They used a vibrating crystal method of particulate measurement and captured gases in a bottle for later laboratory analysis. They could be carried onto air-craft and into restaurants; they required about an hour to capture enough to create a meaningful measure.

Documents & Timeline

1976 An illness caused by a bacterium later known as Legionella pneumophilia struck 182 people attending an American Legion convention in an air-conditioned hotel in Philadelphia. Twenty nine people died immediately from pneumonia-type symptoms, with another 5 subsequent fatalities. The disease was later identified as a variation on another disease named Pontiac Fever. This was the original scare-story which was later exploited by the chemical industry (which had a formaldehyde problem) and the tobacco industry (with passive smoking problems) as "sick building syndrome."

1986 Aug 15 Fleishman-Hillard (Paul Johnson and Karen Doyne) sent Gray Robertson some material that he might be able to use during his ACVA media tour for the Tobacco Institute.

Radon and Legionnaire's Disease
Attached is a story you may have seen in this morning's Post concerning new data on the threat of radon gas in private homes. It would be useful for you to mention during interviews, as a timely angle.

Note in particular that the Environmental Protection Agency is recommending improved ventilation as a radon-reduction method. Is there any reason we can't extrapolate to relate the findings to larger, public buildings as well as private homes?

At the same time, of course, we should take care to see that radon doesn't become the focus of our story -- and that you don't get dragged into a detailed discussion of the radon controversy. Note that EPA's radon-reduction recommendations also suggest that homeowners stop smoking and not allow others to smoke in their homes ("A Citizen's Guide to Radon," pp. 12-13.) [Their emphasis]

In addition, your surprisingly high estimate of the frequency of Legionnaires' Disease has prompted us to gather some data on outbreaks during the last few years. We are still in the process of putting it together, but as you can see from the attached example in Spokane, this could be very useful as a local angle for some of your interviews . [7]