Air Conditioning & Ventilation Associates

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

Air Conditioning & Ventilation Associates (ACVA) was a company created by two English-born lobbyist/technicians with air-conditioning backgrounds: Peter Binnie and John Graham Robertson (universally known as Gray Robertson.') The company itself was known universally by the initials "ACVA" rather than by the full-out name; it specialised in diagnosing the cause of poor indoor air quality -- and made a fortune from the tobacco industry by faking the results to discount the problems of passive smoking.

ACVA (aka ACVA Atlantic) began operating in the USA as a duct-cleaning and testing company in 1984. According to the corporate myth (told by ex-employee Reg Simmons in testimony), ACVA Atlantic was recruited by the Tobacco industry in "the Spring of 1986" to provide fake air testing. However it is now known that it was funded even earlier by the Tobacco Institute to conduct IAQ testing using monitor placement which would downplayed the role of tobacco smoke. This was possible because indoor air in the 1980s often had higher-than-safe/comfortable levels of other chemicals.

They could therefore exaggerate the problems of formaldehyde from particleboard (which was a significant source of problems); exudates from synthetic carpets; claims of vapor emissions from photocopiers, etc. etc. ... and then recommending solutions which included faster rates of air-exchange in offices, and expensive reconditioning of air ducting and conditioning machinery. The company also popularised the term "Sick Building Syndrome".

ACVA became Healthy Buildings International when Gray Robertson took full control c. 1990. Peter Binnie moved to providing only backroom supervisory and administation services. The extensive services HBI offered the tobacco industry were supported by air-conditioning manufacturers, installers and maintenance companies; HVAC unions, sheet-metal workers organisations like the NEMI and other organisations that stood to gain. Over time, HBI became the pre-eminant (and most financially rewarded) of a dozen or so IAQ testing firms which contracted surreptitiously through the Tobacco Institute.

Healthy Buildings International (HBI)
Peter WH Binnie and Joseph Robertson
Richard Silberman and Simon Turner
Jeffrey R Seckler and Reginald B Simmons
Business Council on Indoor Air
The Legionnaires' disease scam
Sick Building Syndrome
ACVA/HBI (Doc Index)

From ACVA to HBI

ACVA quickly expanded under heavy funding by the Tobacco Institute and Philip Morris, and eventually it was split into two: ACVA Atlantic and ACVA Pacific. The latter was run from a Sydney, Australian office by Gray Robertson's brother Joe Robertson for the Pacific region and Asia. Gray then took over full control of the company from his partner Peter Binnie and became the tobacco industry's main indoor air-quality (IAQ) lobbyist. He made himself available to the tobacco industry to make regular "media tours" around the USA as an "independent expert"; conducted lectures and speaking engagements in the USA and overseas when required; and became personally available as an expert witness in court cases and inquiries. He always supported the tobacco industry claims.

Robertson changed the name of the company to Healthy Buildings International (HBI) at a time when he was developing a branch in Europe (He appears to have acquired a small Scandanavian company with that name.) and it was under the "HBI" banner that the company expanded it globally. There are thousands of documents in the tobacco industry archives which record the activities of Robertson, ACVA and HBI. Search on these names in the tobacco documents archive: [1]

ACVA/HBI and Robertson helped disseminate the tobacco industry's strategy of avoiding discussion of the environmental tobacco smoke(ETS)/health link by deflecting attention away from secondhand smoke to "the larger problem of all of indoor air. (IAQ)"

Philip Morris eventually took on more of the support operations for Healthy Buildings International (HBI) and they invented and jointly publicized the idea of Sick Building Syndrome to capitalise on public fears of Legionairre's Disease (bacteria breeding in water cooling tanks) to take attention away from cigarettes as a point-source of dangerous indoor air pollution.

In 1994 Dec the activities of HBI were exposed by a US House of Representatives Subcommittee looking at the problem of ETS. This was a result of the work of Rep. Henry Waxman. Gray Robertson's activities was also exposed by whistleblowers Jeff Seckler and Reginald Simmons.

Subcommittee on Health and the Environment - Majority Staff Report: Dec. 20 1994
Healthy Buildings International (HBI) began its relationship with the tobacco industry in 1985. At that time, the company was a small and obscure indoor air firm. In addition to the president and vice president, it had only two technical employees and operated under the name ACVA Atlantic. Over the next nine years, however, HBI grew to be an international presence in the indoor air field. This was due in large measure to the patronage of the tobacco industry. During this period, the Tobacco Institute, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, and the Center for Indoor Air Research (a tobacco-industry research organization) paid HBI millions of dollars for its services.
    The tobacco industry went to great lengths to promote HBI. The Tobacco Institute paid the expenses of a public relations firm, Fleishman-Hillard, to arrange media tours for HBI throughout the United States. From September 1990 to November 1992, Philip Morris covered all the expenses of, and paid HBI a substantial fee for, the publication of a magazine entitled "Healthy Buildings International Magazine." The magazine, which included glossy color photographs, was published in eight languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, and Finnish) and disseminated worldwide.
    A report circulated within HBI in late 1991 or 1992 describes "the HBI concept" that the tobacco industry paid so much to promote. According to this document, "the key objective of the HBI concept is to broaden the debate on indoor air quality to deflect the ETS challenge." The document states that "HBI is now positioned as an authority on IAQ issues" [and has] "brought balance to the IAQ [indoor air quality] debate" [by promoting] "acceptance that ETS is in fact a minor contributor."
    HBI performed at least two vital services for the tobacco industry. First, it conducted scientific research for the industry that purported to show that ETS is not a significant source of indoor air pollution. The most significant of these research studies was done in 1989, when HBI was paid over $200,000 by the tobacco industry's Center for Indoor Air Research (CIAR) to study ETS levels in 585 office environments. The results of this study were summarized in a final report to CIAR in January 1990 presented to EPA in public comments in September 1990, and formally published in 1992.
    In addition to conducting research for the tobacco industry, HBI regularly testified for the industry in opposition to federal, state, and local restrictions on smoking. Over most of the last decade, HBI was the tobacco industry's principal defender on ETS matters. According to the records of the Tobacco Institute, HBI testified 129 times for the Tobacco Institute from August 1985 through September 1994 -- an average of more than once per month. In some months, HBI testified as many as six times. HBI's appearances for the Tobacco Institute included testimony before Congress (including this Subcommittee on June 27, 1986, and March 17, 1994), before state legislatures, and before local governments. [2]


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