Education: Roast those holiday chestnuts in the oven

Opinion from the Philadelphia Enquirer, Sunday, December 8,1996

Roast those holiday chestnuts in the oven

To most people, the holiday season is a time of decorating, shopping and family visits. To those monitoring air quality, this time of year is unmistakably marked on graphs by soaring peaks of fine-particle air pollution. This is the component of air pollution reported by the Harvard School of Public Health to most significantly contribute to premature death and serious heart and lung disease.

Fireplaces and wood stoves are estimated to be the origin of 35 percent of fine-article pollution as a national average, more than any other single source. Air-quality monitors placed in communities record the highest concentration of fine particles and airborne carcinogens during popular wood-burning times. Yet because the image of flickering flames has been institutionalized as a backdrop for the ``good life,'' it is taboo to suggest eliminating it.

The EPA passes the regulatory buck to the states. The states pass the buck to the local municipalities. In the words of James Rue, the head of air quality in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, ``Never in our lifetime will DEP address this issue.''

The municipalities find it is easiest to maintain the status quo and side with the polluters. In Exeter Township, the supervisors recently rewrote a long-standing clean-air ordinance to specifically exempt residential burning. This was their response to a resident's request for help in clearing the air in her townhouse neighborhood where many of the homes are heated with wood.

This problem is countrywide. In the smog capital of Los Angeles, researchers at the California Institute of Technology found that 40 percent of the particle pollution during the winter months was wood smoke from fireplaces. A Sarasota, Fla., resident reports being literally smoked out of her home for two months by her neighbor's woodstove. In the north, this stench permeates every community.

Microscopic wood-smoke particles, like tiny daggers, pierce tissue in the deepest recesses of our lungs. One hundred carcinogenic and toxic chemical compounds identified in wood smoke are carried by the particles directly to the bloodstream through the lungs. Wood smoke is more carcinogenic than equal volumes of secondhand tobacco smoke. Laboratory animals exposed to wood smoke for 1_1/2 to 2_1/2 hours experienced reductions in ability to fight respiratory infections of 23 percent and 61 percent, respectively. It is understandable then why so many of us seem to come down with a cold or the ``flu'' around the holidays.

Knowing the science behind the practice of wood combustion brings a whole new meaning to the tradition of ``toasting'' our friends in front of the fireplace. This holiday season, and all year round, don't just wish those you care for good cheer and good health; give yourself, your family and your neighbors the gift of clean air and good health: Don't burn wood.

J McGrath, Engineer

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