Burning Issues

That cozy fire isn't so comfy after all
Wood smoke leads to particle pollution, which leads to lung disease, heart attacks and strokes -- with children most at risk
ByJenny Bard
From The Contra Costa Times, posted December 30, 2006
IS THERE ANY SIGHT more comforting on a cold winter evening than a roaring fireplace?

According to recent scientific studies, we should be anything but comforted: Wood smoke, we now know, is hazardous to our health.

Burning wood creates significant amounts of fine particle pollution. The more scientists have learned about particle pollution, the more alarmed they have become.

Thousands of studies link particle pollution with a host of health problems that include asthma attacks, diminished lung function, respiratory ailments, heart attacks and stroke. While particle pollution affects everyone, it is particularly dangerous for children -- whose lungs are still developing -- and can cause bronchitis, increases in respiratory infections and impaired lung development.

These are just a few of the reasons the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now considers fine particle pollution its "most pressing air quality problem."

If you're skeptical that smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves could actually be a significant source of air pollution, consider this: According to the California Air Resources Board, residential wood burning is the single biggest contributor to winter particle pollution in the Bay Area, contributing more particle pollution to our air than automobiles, diesel vehicles or industry.

Last December, the air quality in the Bay Area exceeded the recently enacted EPA particle pollution standard on one out of every three days, largely because of wood burning.

It would be bad enough if the story ended here, but it doesn't. Wood smoke also contains toxic and carcinogenic substances that include benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxin. According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management Agency, one-third of the total amount of dioxin in the area comes from wood burning.

It may seem hard to believe that something so familiar could actually be harmful to our health. But just watch a movie from the 1940s, and you'll realize that cigarette smoking was also once considered harmless, and just as ubiquitous, as wood burning is today. EPA researchers estimate that the cancer risk from wood smoke may be 12 times greater than from an equal amount of tobacco smoke.

The hazardous particles from wood smoke are so tiny that they can easily infiltrate homes. While we may have effectively banned tobacco smoke from our public places, there is currently no way to avoid something potentially far more dangerous right at home.

Every winter, local offices of the American Lung Association receive phone calls from distraught families suffering from health problems caused by wood burning. Often, they have young children with asthma who are literally unable to breathe in their own homes. Some of these families have had to resort to selling their houses and moving to areas with less wood-smoke pollution.

Fortunately, there are easily available solutions. Gas fireplaces now so convincingly imitate their log-burning brethren that it is difficult to tell them apart -- and gas is far more convenient and cleaner-burning. Gas-burning "woodstoves" can be inserted into fireplaces, and they put out a small fraction of the particle pollution of those that burn wood. Electric models offer amazing realism. If gas is not an option, pellet stoves deliver high overall efficiency and burn relatively cleanly. With improved woodstove combustion technologies, some newer stoves have certified emissions as low as pellet stoves.

The American Lung Association of California is working with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to promote the cleanest burning options and to enact effective measures to protect the public from wood smoke pollution. The health of our community depends on it.

But the most important change we can make is in our collective attitude toward wood-burning. This will be difficult, since it has been engrained in human behavior ever since our ancestors first gathered around a fire in a dark cave.

The first step is for us to stop associating that roaring fire with ambience and romance and start linking it with an asthmatic child reaching desperately for his inhaler.

Bard is director of clean air programs a
t the American Lung Association of California in Santa Rosa.

All of this wonderful science information was supplied to ALA's Jenny Bard last summer by CAR, Inc.Ahh, if only she included the websource for her material! http://burningissues.org

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