ENVIRONMENTAL TERRORISM: Welcome to the Trenches March 1, 2003

by L. Backus, B.A., Historical Studies, M.A. candidate, E. Backus, B.S., Health Science/Respiratory Therapy <>

"Your right to peaceful picketing was guaranteed by the Supreme Court as long ago as 1940, in the case Thornhill v. Alabama. Free speech is our last bastion against injustice when all other means have failed. In some developing countries with virtually no environmental laws in place to protect citizens from pollution, people who are suffering are not allowed to speak out and protest. Fortunately, this is one right you still have as an American, and officials and polluters who trample on the First Amendment go down that road at their own legal peril. "

It seems that we have heard the phrase "War on Terrorism" almost every day since September 11, 2001. But do you know that people are being terrorized environmentally, on a daily basis, by the smokestack emissions of their own neighbors? Before I was personally victimized by such pollution, I would have never guessed that such a thing would ever happen to me. Even in my wildest imagination, I would never have been able to predict that my mother and I would actually be denied the right to breathe fresh air by neighbors who repeatedly and senselessly operate hellacious-smelling wood stoves in barns to produce odors that make the lungs seize up and create nausea in the pit of one's stomach. The odors that emanate from two barns near our house are so offensive to the respiratory tract that the neighbors would not even think of placing such foul-smelling devices in their own living rooms. Our neighbors know that their burning activities are producing respiratory problems, headaches, and nausea in my family. However, their response has actually been to step up the burning and burn even fouler-smelling materials than before. We have even seen them laughing at our suffering, taking delight in the production of strange new odors and colorful varieties of smoke, as if it were all a great big joke. This is something that I find difficult to understand, since my mother and I are the kinds of people who would be distressed to hear that any of our neighbors were suffering physical symptoms from pollution that was coming from our property. If the shoe were on the other foot and we ever thought that we were responsible for such a thing, we would rush to remedy the situation immediately. Not because we would be afraid of a lawsuit, but simply because we would not want to be responsible for ruining the health of other human beings. So what kind of person would want to do this, you ask? Who is the burner? In a case like this, I call him an environmental terrorist because he has absolutely no compunctions about destroying the health and happiness of his neighbors and literally making it impossible for them to live and function in their own homes. He does it, in my opinion, for several reasons. First of all, he is ignorant, like most of us are before we study this subject. He probably has no idea how toxic the smokestack emissions produced by wood stoves can be for human beings. And he should know, because the very same emissions that make his neighbors' lungs hurt, give them coughs and headaches, and produce nausea will eventually sicken his own family, if it has not happened already. Second, he may believe that he is doing something very wholesome and rustic when he uses a wood stove. In this sense, he is deluded by a popular myth that the sellers of wood stoves are hoping you will buy into. The idea that wood smoke and fumes are "wholesome"is scientifically bogus and somewhat like the old belief that once prevailed about secondhand smoke -- that it was not harmful in any way. We now know better. Secondhand smoke is toxic, and we are taking steps to reduce it in public places. But in most communities, nothing is being done to stop wood smoke pollution, which is twelve times more toxic than cigarette smoke. A third point is that this kind of burner is arrogant. He believes that it is his "right" to produce just about any odor and chemical reaction he can conjure up in that stove (and they vary greatly) and that nobody really has a right to question him on the subject. My profile of the chronic burner is ignorance, delusion, and arrogance. Part of that arrogance can lead him to threaten you with bodily harm or destruction of your property. Just because we filed a pollution complaint against our burners, they dumped gasoline on our doorstep to threaten us. If this seems like a rather extreme reaction, it is, but it is not inconsistent with the profile of the kind of burner I call an environmental terrorist.

When you become a victim of this environmental terrorism, do not be surprised if your town, county, state, or the Federal government sides with the polluters and refuses to help you. That is because in most parts of the United States, law has not yet caught up with science on this issue. Legal mechanisms have not yet evolved to protect residential areas from environmentally negligent or overtly malicious air-poisoners. If they were corporations, more laws would be available to force them to clean up their operations. In fact, I believe that if my neighbors were running businesses that were polluting, we would have been able to shut down their polluting activities by now. Authorities need to open their eyes to the fact that intentionally destroying the quality of your neighbor's air is no different than battery--physically laying hands on him to do him harm. I believe that some day the law will evolve to the point where authorities will begin to take this environmental abuse more seriously and treat it like the crime it truly is. But we still have a long way to go.

As a victim of smokestack poisoning, what can you do? I would like to be able to give you a solution that eases your mind, but I have no such solution. If you are an ordinary person like me who is not wealthy enough to shell out about $30,000 to sue your polluters, you may be placed in an almost impossible position of having to sell your house and move, perhaps, although you do not want to lie to a prospective buyer by failing to disclose the propertyÕs air quality problem. This is how the burner not only destroys your own health, but your entire life, by forcing you out of your own home and making the real estate you own virtually worthless. You may love your house, and you may have planned to remain in it for the rest of your days; perhaps you worked hard to pay the mortgage for many years. But you cannot remain in your house, because you know that it is only a matter of time before you will succumb to lung cancer or something equally grave if you continue to breathe in the emissions. Because studies have already shown these emissions to be highly toxic, I can say without exaggeration that the town of Skaneateles, New York, Onondaga County, and New York State have all sentenced my family to death by refusing to stop the fumes that are bombarding our house around the clock. You can see why being a victim of smokestack poisoning is not a fate that I would wish on my worst enemy. It is a living hell. In most cases, there will be no support system for a person in this position, and this can lead to severe depression on your part, and even suicidal or violent thoughts. Expect that your neighbors and various authorities you contact to try to resolve the problem will try to make you out to be a nut case. The authorities you contact do not live in your house on a daily basis and therefore can never know what you are going through living in a chemical "soup" of fumes over a long term. However, you and I can be fairly certain that if their OWN families were exposed to the same kinds of toxic odors night and day, they would indeed find the situation intolerable and take action. But they are not you.

It is easy for authorities to write you off as a nut case because the alternative is to actually help you, and in most states, there is no real effective system in place for doing that yet. It s also very tempting for authorities to write you off as a nut case because many of them are convinced (without ever having studied the issue) that wood stove fumes are "harmless"--even if they smell like something out of Dante's Inferno. In all likelihood, you will be experiencing a highly-localized form of pollution. This means if your house is not close to other houses, you will have trouble getting witnesses if the smoke and/or fumes in question normally blow toward your residence and not anyone else's. On top of this, expect to be treated like a nut case because the witnesses you do find will probably be too afraid to back you up. I found that most people who visit our house and smell the smokestack fumes agree that they are awful, but the same individuals are too afraid to sign an affidavit saying that they smelled odors, out of a fear that the burners will retaliate against them.
If you are dealing with a government agency, the bottom line for them is always money. In their way of thinking, the use of actual air-testing equipment to help you to substantiate your complaints in a very concrete and empirical way is too costly for the town, county, state, or Federal government to take on in cases where the polluter is not a corporation. Ironically, however, the ineffective, bureaucratic kind of assistance they will offer you will end up costing the taxpayer a lot MORE money in the final analysis. Government agencies are bureaucracies, and most of them are still poorly equipped to deal with residential polluters. As a result, authorities may try to "blame the victim" (a D.E.C. officer actually threatened to "cite" us if we called him and he did not think the fumes were strong enough !--nice subjective criteria for law enforcement purposes, eh?). The alternative to blaming the victim would be to admit that the agency in question is incapable of handling residential air quality problems. So what kind of change is needed? To truly assist you, the authorities you contact would need to verify that your toxic fumes complaints were legitimate by planting monitoring devices on or in your home for a week or two. If this were the policy, the toxic air that is making you sick would become evident in the readings, and a great deal of money would be saved because the unreliable and subjective "sniffing tests" and time-consuming visits that most authorities rely on would be replaced by tests that are truly scientific and objective. If you can smell a chemical, it will show up on an air test, and you will be able to test for toxins. Unfortunately, this is not how things are done yet. But we are going to need to solve this problem in the future using much more efficient means than we have at present.
More and more people are getting fumed and smoked out of their homes every day. Their neighbors are depriving them of a fundamental human right -- the right to breathe reasonably fresh air. This is one of those rights that you will never really appreciate until you lose it. Our air toxicity problem did not become unbearable until a tornado destroyed some huge spruce trees that were shielding our home, in the summer of 2002. Of all the horrors we could have imagined, this was never one of them. You would never think that everything you have could be put in jeopardy like this one day--your health, your property, and your psychological well-being, all in one fell swoop. The only analogy I can think of for this experience is perhaps the way that warfare affects society. But even if you were a civilian casualty of warfare, you'd probably have more people on your side; you'd probably have more of a support system. It is hard for me to believe that anyone living in the United States could ever fall into such a state of oppression. You'd only think such things happen to political dissidents in dictatorships in other parts of the world.

Speaking of dictatorships--besides the damage I have mentioned, there is another kind of damage that may be done to you if you are a victim of burners. Neighbors and authorities may try to silence you by taking away your right to speak freely. But this is one thing that they cannot get away with unless you let them. This is where your strength lies. You have a constitutional right to speak about the problem, pass out information to the public on this kind of pollution, and put up protest signs. If the burners are going to kill you (and they may well do it with the full cooperation of the authorities) at least you do not have to go silently into the night with a whimper. If officials side with the polluters and force you to remove your protest signs, then pick up those signs and do protest marches with them. If you want to protest but are unfamiliar with how the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment over the years, ask your lawyer if you have one, or call your local legal aid society for free advice. Your local chapter of the A.C.L.U. is also a good resource. I found them to be sympathetic when it comes to environmental protest issues, and if they cannot support you in your sign battle, they will certainly be able to give you advice on your protest rights. Your right to peaceful picketing was guaranteed by the Supreme Court as long ago as 1940, in the case Thornhill v. Alabama. Free speech is our last bastion against injustice when all other means have failed. In some developing countries with virtually no environmental laws in place to protect citizens from pollution, people who are suffering are not allowed to speak out and protest. Fortunately, this is one right you still have as an American, and officials and polluters who trample on the First Amendment go down that road at their own legal peril. But this does not mean they wonÕt try to shut you up. They would like nothing more than to see you slink away into the shadows and disappear so that they can continue to spew their toxins into the air and poison your lungs. But we canÕt be silent. On the contrary, I would advise you to scream bloody murder, because thatÕs exactly what this kind of environmental terrorism is--murder. Hopefully thousands more will not have to die before the Federal, state, and local governments "wake up and smell the fumes." At one time in this country, it was considered acceptable to own slaves, and women were once prohibited from voting; the few who spoke out against such things were labeled "hysterical" wackos. More recently, you would have been considered a paranoid alarmist if you said that second-hand smoke was harmful. As a student of history who is working on a MasterÕs thesis about the way culture can blind a society to certain truths, including scientific facts and moral injustices, I definitely see a parallel here. Human history is often a long, slow process of people WAKING UP to the truth. So wake up and join with us and the people sponsoring this web site and take your place on the cutting edge of environmental activism.

- L. Backus, B.A., Historical Studies, M.A. candidate
- E. Backus, B.S., Health Science/Respiratory Therapy