First published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 19, 1994. With Permission of the author.
To Joyce McGrath' Christmas is the dirtiest day of the year. To Mary Rozenberg, Christmas is "a killer."
And it's all because of people like me - people who believe that nothing contributes more to holiday warmth and cheer than Yule logs crackling in the hearth.
Understand, Joyce and Mary have nothing against us. We're not bad. Just ignorant. Ignorant about the alarming health hazards of wood smoke.
Yes, wood smoke, So natural and seemingIy harmless. The stuff that smells so good on back roads in New England, that wafts lazily from all.those potbelly stoves that granola-eating ex-hippies bought to conserve oil, defy the Arabs and save the Earth ("split wood, not atoms"). The stuff that tickles some primitive nerve, giving us atavistic comfort, reminding us of the good ol'days, when our ancestors gathered 'round the fire and gnawed on roast pterodactyl.
This is the time of year, of course, when everybody with a wood stove stokes it and everybody with a fireplace builds a cozy blaze. It's a way to beat back winter's cold and make the holidays more merry and bright.
This is also the time of year when the air, so seemingly crisp, clear and pure, can be surprisingly filthy. In fact, in some neighborhoods, the air on Christmas Day-what with everybody using their fireplaces (Often as incinerators for wrapping and packaging) and chimneys pouring forth steady streams of smoke-can be the foulest and most dangerous of the year, studies show.
McGrath and Rozenberg live on opposite sides of the country, but both are united in their determination to publicize the perils of wood smoke. They realize they are paddling against a Mississippi of public opinion, entrenched tradition and cultural resistance. But having suffered from the effects of wood smoke, having spent years collecting and studying information aboutwood smoke, they feel obliged to share what they know.
And what they know is scary:
Wood smoke contains over 100 different chemicals or compounds. Many are extremely poisonous and carcinogenic. (Cancer of the skin in chimney sweeps was linked to soot as early as 1775.)
The particles in wood smoke are too minute to be filtered out and trapped by the nose and upper respiratory system. So they wind up deep in the lungs. Under an electron microscope, they look like tiny daggers. Some are iron-coated from combustion. These particles can remain in the lungs for months, years, often a lifetime, irritating and scarring the delicate lining, causing chemical changes and permanent damage.
Wood smoke may be more destructive and lethal than tobacco smoke. Biopsies of rural women exposed regularly and only to wood smoke revealed that their lungs were raw and red, ravaged by fissures, worse than lungs assaulted continually by cigarettes.
What's more, while tobacco smoke is chemically active for 30 seconds wood smoke is chemically active for 20 minutes. Translation: The free radicals unleashed by wood smoke have 40 times more time to attack the body's immune system and work their mischief.
Then there's this, from Environmental Protection Agency researchers: Your cancer risk from wood. stove emissions is 12 times that from the same amount of cigarette smoke.
Wood smoke decreases lung function. It aggravates asthma, emphysema, pneumonia and bronchitis. It stings the eyes and triggers headaches and allergies. Long-term exposure may lead to emphysema, chronic bronchitis, arteriosclerosis, and nasal, throat, lung, blood and lymph-system cancers.
· Wood smoke emits hazardous quantities of carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless toxic gas that robs the blood of oxygen and can cause drowsiness, fatigue, headaches, heart pain and heart attacks.
Wood smoke is especially threatening to newborns, young children and the elderly.
As a fuel, wood is a thousand times dirtier than gas. Heating with a wood stove for one season generates as much pollution as driving a car 130,000 miles. Burn a 20-pound stack of wood in an evening and you've put a pound of pollution into the air. That pollution can stay airborne for three weeks and travel up to 700 miles. On heavy-burning evenings in some residential communities, the air is dirtier and more noxious than that around an aluminum smelting plant.
In wintertime, wood smoke is often trapped under a heavy layer of cold air, so there's no route for vertical dispersal. Result: As much as 70 percent re-enters your home (augmenting the pollution already there) or the homes of nearby neighbors. Because the smoke particles are so fine, and no house is completely airtight, there's no way to prevent smoke from invading through cracks in windows, doors, siding, etc.
Heard enough? Joyce McGrath has plenty more-a whole cardboard box full of research papers and letters from experts attesting to the pernicious effects of wood smoke.
She's a reluctant crusader ("I wish this would all just go away," she sighs), Gentle, soft-spoken, retiring, McGrath, 40, became a dauntless activist after smoke from a neighbor's ever-burning wood stove became unbearable. Despite repeated pleas over the past five years, the neighbor refused to stop. McGrath and her husband were stymied. They didn't want to leave their cul-de-sac dream house in Audubon, Montgomery County, perched on a ridge with a sweeping view of the King of Prussia valley. (And why should they?) But life couldn't go on this way.
So McGrath beseeched a whole raft of agencies for help: the EPA, the DER, the health department, the township. And always the answer was the same: "Sorry, lady. It's pollution, yes, but the source is residential. Nothing we can do about it."
To McGrath's regret, the dispute has escalated into a legal battle. "No one wants to sue their neighbors, but we really had no choice," she was saying the other day in her kitchen. "You shouldn't have to run from the house to your car because you're gagging. You shouldn't have to go indoors because your eyes are burning. When your children come in after playing outside, their hair and clothes shouldn't reek of smoke.
"What's the main job of a mother? To protect her children, to try to protect their health," says this mother of two boys, 7 and 18 months, and a girl, 6. "I use nontoxic detergents. I watch their vitamins and fat intake and TV viewing, all the things a mother is supposed to do. But all this is meaningless when they're playing in a plume of smoke."
McGrath may be a rookie radical but she's no ordinary housewife. She's got a degree in civil engineering and before the birth of her infant son worked as an industrial safety engineer. "I'd go into factories and evaluate air quality. When you put that background together with being a mom, I can't help but be concerned. I can't ignore it.
"People say, 'How can wood smoke be bad? It's natural. We've been doing it since the dawn of civilization.' That's the caveman response, something imprinted in our genes when fire was discovered, and it's understandable, but the facts can no longer be denied: Wood smoke is dirty and unhealthy; wood smoke is hurting and killing people.
"People feel very strongly they have a right to burn," McGrath says. "But their right to burn stops when their smoke crosses the property line and infringes on my right to clean air and good health. We all have choices and responsibilities in this society, at the minimum not to hurt our neighbors or harm innocent children and vulnerable old people. It's not only a health issue: it's an etiquette issue, a moral issue."
McGrath can't understand it. We're spending millions trying to develop cleaner fuels and further reduce auto pollution, yet wood smoke and open burning, by some estimates, account for as much as a quarter of our foul air. "It's such an obvious source," she laments, "but nobody's doing anything about it."
Well not quite. There's McGrath. And there are the 1,500 other members of Burning Issues, which was founded by Mary Rozenberg in 1989. Like McGrath, Rozenberg, too, had her life made miserable by a neighbor with an incessant wood stove. Lupus, a disease of the immune system, had forced Rozenberg, 48, a Juilliard-trained musician, to give up her career as a cellist. Now it made her especially vulnerable to the depredations of wood smoke. She became chronically ill and developed asthma. After years of vain protest, she ran up the white flag. She moved from her house in Los Altos, Calif., to a 50-acre tract, a veritable clean-air sanctuary, about 120 miles north in Point Arena.
She may have lost the battle, but she's still fighting the war, still spearheading the "Learn Not to Burn" campaign. Over the past few years, she's assembled a library of over 400 scientific papers about the evils of wood smoke. Despite lupus and the tug of other ambitions, she's devoting most of her waking hours and plenty of her own money ($14,000 1ast year) to Burning Issues, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve everybody's respiratory health (and save perhaps as many as 60,000 lives a year) by reducing particulate pollution like that caused by wood smoke.
The solution? Ban wood stoves (the new EPA-certified models are no safer than the old ones, Rozenberg claims). Forbid builders from installing wood-burning fireplaces and wood stoves in new houses. Using tax credits, encourage owners of existing fireplaces and wood stoves to retrofit with clean-burning gas inserts. Outlaw the burning of wood in cities and suburbs (as they've done in Britain for nearly 40 years).
But how can you replace the romance of a blazing fire?
"Make some vegetable soup or bake cookies if you want to feel cozy," says Rozenberg. "Do things with your family that have a nice aroma and are healthy."
As for those flaming Yule logs: "If you don't burn wood on Christmas, you're already doing something good. If just one person stops burning, that can make a big difference What nicer gift could you give your neighbors?"
Back to Burning Issues