Adel Gordon's career is going up in smoke.
Scientist, wife, mother. . . . At 33 she should be heading for the top of the ladder. The world should be her oyster, as they say.
But her problem is cigarettes: somebody else's.
If anyone is smoking around her, her eyes stream. She coughs. She wheezes. Her nose becomes stuffy, red and swollen and she becomes nauseated. She is allergic -- medically, they say sensitive -- to cigarette smoke.
When she was a teacher -- of general science, biology and physical sciences -- she was in the traditionally smoke-free environment of the classroom. But her eagerness to get ahead and her educational qualifications -- she has a master's degree in environmental sciences -- led her to enter the burgeoning scientific and computer-research field.
She worked for two companies, one before the birth of her first child and a different one afterwards. In each case, she says, her employers and co-workers cooperated fully, understandingly, with her need to avoid cigarette smoke.
About a year ago, she heard about Raven Systems and Research, Inc., a scientific and research firm under contract with the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the safety of various insecticides, among other projects. The firm was particularly attractive to her, she says, because it was a minority-owned business and "basically I thought my career opportunities would be greater in a minority company. I thought I could probably advance faster and, of course, the pay was much better . . ."
All of which touches subsequent events with an irony that does not escape her.
In two issues last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published separate studies on the effects of tobacco and smoking on nonsmokers. For the first time, they noted in an editorial last week, "We have a quantitative measurement of a physical change . . ." For the first time, there is "statistically sound and significant" evidence that the "small airways of healthy nonsmokers" are adversely affected when "exposed to cigarette smoke in the environment."
The Tobacco Institute takes heart from the editorial's statement that "Generally speaking, the evidence that passive smoking in a general environment has health effects remains sparse, incomplete, and sometimes unconvincing." But the fact remains that the study of 2,100 middle-aged subjects (mostly in the San Diego area) produced hard evidence of distinct changes in the breathing ability of nonsmokers chronically exposed to tobacco smoke.
A week earlier, the Journal published results of another study (sponsored in part by a grant from the Council for Tobacco Research) which confirmed other reports that a genuine allergy to tobacco is an occupational hazard in the tobacco industry. Although the patient in the study reacted more to leaves than to smoke, specific substances in the leaf were isolated and found to be present in tobacco smoke as well.
Adel Gordon was fired from her $14,497-a-year job as a scientist-decoder in September --because, she says in the suit she has filed against the firm, "She refused to be exposed to the burning of tobacco products by other employes in the work area . . ."
In the papers filed in D.C. Superior Court, Gordon notes that her supervisor "stressed that in no way was his decision [to withdraw permission for her to work in a smoke-free area] any reflection on my actual work performance to date, which was quite satisfactory."
As Gordon tells it, her supervisor at Raven arranged initially for her to be seated in a section where no one smoked. However, on the grounds that the arrangement "fostered direct and indirect counter-productive situations," it was canceled last September. An interim "compromise" under which employes were asked to smoke outside the room did not work, she says, because "smoke from adjacent offices flowed into the office where I was assigned to do my work."
When she told her supervisor that "I would not move to an area which would expose me to smoke and the related health hazards . . . He replied that 'the work comes before your health,'" she said in her affidavit.
By this time Gordon was pregnant with her second child -- due this week -- and her smoke-related symptoms had intensified and exacerbated symptoms associated with pregnancy, according to her complaint. She was also concerned for the health of her unborn child. Her physicians had urged her to avoid smoky environments as much as possible.
She claims that her refusal to move her workplace was regarded by the firm as "insubordinate." She was dismissed. She decided to find a lawyer, she says, "because I was desperate." She is seeking reinstatement and financial damages.
Ron Jessamy, the lawyer representing Raven in the suit, said this week he could not comment himself, but had no objection if someone at Raven wanted to discuss the case. Raven president Raymond Mott was out of town. A personnel office spokesman said, "We have been instructed not to say anything about that by our president."
A hearing on Raven's motion to dismiss the suit is scheduled Monday at D.C. Superior Court.
Dr. Alfred Munzer is impatient. The pulmonary specialist at Washington Adventist Hospital and president of the D.C. Lung Association had this to say about the new studies on "passive" smoking: "It is nice to have scientific evidence catch up with common sense, but it is something common sense would have told us a long time ago."
Munzer, a longtime and outspoken foe of smoking in any form, notes that the study had to do with "only one issue -- lung function. It doesn't say anything about many other harmful substances in tobacco smoke that are absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to distant organs." Moreover, "it just adds to the burden of pollutants that the body is subjected to. It may be that any one by itself may not be harmful, but when you add it onto all the other things we may be exposed to, it may very well have a harmful effect."
Jim Repace, a physicist at the Environmental Protection Agency, has spent much of his spare time lately studying indoor air quality and measuring the impact of cigarette smoke. The results of his survey of smoke particles in 38 "indoor environments" in the Washington area are scheduled for publication in Science Magazine next month.
"Basically," he says, "we found outdoor air much cleaner than indoor. Where there was no smoking it wasn't so bad, but (where there were smokers) the level of particulates -- solid particles in the air -- was enormous . . . worse than the emission of cars on the freeway." According to Repace, indoor smoking "is the most serious public health problem we have."
"Adel Gordon," says her lawyer Harris Ammerman, "is not the kind of person who likes to make trouble. She's an average-minded individual. She's not one who'd go out and stand on a soapbox for any specific cause. Her personality is such that she feels, incensed by the situation. She's just trying to regain her self-esteem because when you're fired from your place of employment, it's a mark on your record, regardless of the cause."