Dec 30 2011
Peter Lavac, a Sydney lawyer, fitness fanatic and champion surf skier, thought something was wrong when he was not breathing as freely.
Knowing that smoke was getting into his own flat from the chain-smoking neighbours in the flat below, he tried to get them to stop. Unsuccessful, he approached the body corporate, strata title management and the tenancy tribunal, but to no avail.
He consulted a respiratory specialist, Professor Matthew Peters, who told him to monitor his condition. ”From this data and my symptoms, Professor Peters concluded on the balance of probabilities that my symptoms and decrease in lung function were caused by the second-hand cigarette smoke,” he said.
Professor Peters told Mr Lavac and his wife to reduce their exposure. After living in their flat for 18 months in 2005-06, they changed address.
In March 2008, Mr Lavac was in a criminal trial in the Downing Centre, which happened to be filmed for an ABC documentary, On Trial.
”I got pretty sick but at the time I didn’t realise just how sick,” he said. ”I had a bad flu that didn’t seem to go away. After the jury verdict I got an X-ray done. I thought I had pneumonia.”
A CAT scan detected a small dark shadow at the top of his right lung, and a biopsy confirmed it was cancer. ”I had been training for almost a year for a competition in Hawaii, the Molokai Surfski World Championships, a long-distance open ocean surf-ski race … scheduled for May 2008,” he said.
”In the space of one week, my whole life was turned upside down. One week I was trying to figure out how much water I would need to get me from Molokai to Oahu. The following week I was on the operating table, fighting for my life.”
Mr Lavac, who had never smoked, lost a third of his right lung. His surgeon and Professor Peters told him that on the balance of probabilities, the lesion had been caused by passive smoking.
Mr Lavac has had no recurrence of the symptoms and is back in training, although his breathing capacity will always be more limited. He is planning legal action against the people he claims caused his disease: the smokers, the body corporate and the strata management company.
Mr Lavac said there were many situations, such as in multi-unit buildings, retirement villages and nursing homes, with similar dangers of smoke intrusion through windows, vents, cavities and other spaces.
Professor Peters, the chairman of Action on Smoking and Health, told the Herald there was no lower limit for exposure to smoking. ”If you can smell smoke, it is hurting you,” he said.
He said Mr Lavac’s case was unique because he knew he was exposed beforehand and did his best to mitigate it. But for others, such as residents of nursing homes who were even more vulnerable, there was not the same awareness of the dangers.
A spokesman for Action on Smoking and Health, Stafford Sanders, said the dangers of passive smoking in people’s homes were now being recognised.
”We have had situations where people have been driven out of their own homes by it,” he said. ”There have been a number of successful workers compensation claims but now people are starting to realise they have a right to complain about exposure elsewhere.”
By Malcolm Brown