Burning Issues

From: S.E.N.S.E., S.E.N.S.E. (Solutions for the Elimination of Neighborhood Smoke Emissions) at P.O. Box 2308, Redmond, WA 98073-2308 or 425-818-7736, email: havesomesense@hotmail.com

Protecting Your Family from Neighborhood Wood Smoke

If the smell of wood burning in stoves and fireplaces is common in your neighborhood during winter, you may want to consider taking steps to reduce your family’s exposure to wood smoke. Although many people have a fondness for wood fires, a swell of recent studies have shown that inhaling the fine particles in wood smoke is even more harmful than previously imagined.

As many as 60,000 Americans die each year from breathing the type of fine particle pollution found in wood smoke, at levels that are not currently illegal, according to the Washington Department of Ecology. People who are potentially most vulnerable to harm from wood smoke include infants, children, the elderly and people with heart or lung disease, including asthma.

  1. Stop Burning.

    The single most important step you can take to protect your family from the fine particles in wood smoke is to stop burning wood in your home. When you burn wood in a stove or a fireplace, some of the particulate exhausted from the chimney inevitably re-enters your home. The particles are so small that closing doors and windows does not stop them.

    Indoor levels of fine particle pollution from wood smoke reach at least 50% to 70% of outdoor levels, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

    By switching to a gas stove or fireplace, you can reduce your particulate emissions by a factor of thousands. The air you and your family breathe inside your home will be much cleaner.

    A switch to gas will also help reduce airborne particulate in your neighborhood. Currently, wood stoves and fireplaces account for 62% of fine particle pollution in the Puget Sound region during winter, according to Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. This contribution can reach 80% in some neighborhoods.

  3. Don’t Exercise in Smoky Air.

    Adults who exercise rigorously are among those susceptible to premature death from breathing particulate pollution, according to the American Lung Association. When people exercise in air polluted with fine particles, they inhale the particles deep into their lungs. With jagged edges, the particles may become lodged in the lung tissue, and may cause structural damage. EPA research indicates that lifetime cancer risk from wood smoke is twelve times greater than from an equal volume of cigarette smoke.

    If possible, avoid exerting yourself in areas where wood smoke is prevalent. This includes not only jogging through a smoky neighborhood, but also heavy yard work, or home repairs, if your neighbors burn wood frequently. Be aware that fine particles stay suspended in the air for long periods of time, because they are virtually weightless. So the particles may still be in the air long after the smell of wood smoke is gone.

    People who are not physically fit should be particularly careful, because less exertion will induce them to breathe deeply. The same is true for the elderly, and or children, who have less lung capacity than adults.

  5. Have Respirators on Hand.

    If your household includes an elderly person or someone with asthma or whose health is compromised in any way, particularly with heart or lung disease, you may want to have respirators on hand, for periods when wood smoke reaches a problem level.

    A respirator is a mask with a heavy filter, such as house painters and certain other workers wear to clean the air they breathe. Respirators are available at reasonable cost from well-stocked hardware stores.

    Surgical masks are insufficient to filter the fine particles in wood smoke. The particles are small enough to pass through.

  7. Seal the Leaks.

    Sealing leaks in the walls and floors of your home may help reduce infiltration of outdoor particulate levels. These are the same sorts of improvements that may serve to promote heat retention, lowering your energy bills.

    Places where particulate is most likely to slip into your house include seals around windows, doors and electrical outlets, joists in the basement or crawl space, and the adjoining wall of an attached garage. For approximately $150, you can have a "blower test" of your home to locate the principal air leaks.

    Leaks can be sealed with non-toxic polyurethane foam. You may want to install quality double pane windows, which will provide a better seal against outside air, as well as better heat retention.

    For professional assistance, contact the Washington Home Energy Assessment Network (http://www.energy.wsu.edu/buildings/hersraters.htm).


  8. Place HEPA Filters in Key Rooms.

    The typical HEPA filter is an electrical appliance that cleans air in a single room. Units currently on the market can filter particles as small as 1 micron. Wood smoke particles (PM10) are no greater than 10 microns (a micron is one millionth of a meter). Most of them are less than 2.5 microns in diameter. A HEPA filter is especially useful for rooms where people spend a large portion of the day, such as an office or bedroom. If you have an infant in your household, you may want to place a HEPA filter near the crib, because particle pollution is known to interfere with lung development in infants. Airborne particulate is also a suspected factor in sudden infant death syndrome.

    Dr. David Anderson, an indoor air quality consultant in Seattle, particularly recommends Aireox brand filters. Aireox filters have both a HEPA and activated carbon filter to filter out smoke and irritating gases. Aireox filters can be purchased at Environmental Home Center in Seattle. The approximate cost is $312. People sensitive to air pollutants probably will prefer a unit that simply blows air through thick filters and does not use an electrical charge to trap particles. The models that rely on an electrical charge release ozone as a byproduct, and ozone is itself a potential irritant.

  9. Upgrade HVAC.

    By installing a charcoal filter or a HEPA filter in your HVAC system, you can filter air throughout your house. In the case of a forced hot air system, the upgrade involves retrofitting the furnace’s return plenum with a slot large enough to accommodate the new filter.

    Most people will want to hire a professional HVAC contractor for this sort of job. You want to make sure that the filter is not too thick relative to the existing components. If the system is not powerful enough to draw air through the filter, the system may draw unfiltered air from other sources, undermining the purpose of the upgrade and perhaps damaging the whole system.

    A charcoal filter is effective against the irritating gases that attach to wood smoke particles. For better efficiency, install a HEPA filter that will remove particles greater than 0.1 micron in size.

  10. Report Problems to PSCAA.

If you are bothered by wood smoke in your neighborhood, contact Puget Sound Clean Air Agency at 206-343-8800 or 1-800-552-3565 (or http://www.pscleanair.org). It is illegal to produce wood smoke or any other air pollution that is harmful to health or that "unreasonably interferes with enjoyment of life and property." Smoke that carries an odor that is "distinct and definite" to a neighbor’s property may violate this standard.

PSCAA has the power to impose a fine of up to $12,000 for a single violation of any of the legal limits on wood smoke emissions. The fine for a first violation is typically in excess of $2000.

An organization specializing in research and education about the health effects of wood smoke is Burning Issues (www.burningissues.org.).

Another resource is S.E.N.S.E. (Solutions for the Elimination of Neighborhood Smoke Emissions) at P.O. Box 2308, Redmond, WA 98073-2308 or 425-818-7736, email: havesomesense@hotmail.com (website not yet finalized).


Burning Issues
Box 1045
Point Arena CA 95468
Tel: 707-882-3601
Email: [pm10mary at mcn dot org]

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