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Wood Smoke: An ‘Ancient and Traditional’ Cause of COPD

March, 2011. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled, “Wood smoke harmful to health and DNA, study finds,” garnered many comments from readers. Many of the comments had a similar theme.

One reader wrote, “Note to All: Our species has been burning wood for warmth, for food preparation, and for general social evolution, for tens of thousands of years.”

Another anonymous commenter said, “Hmmm, lets see man has had FIRE for oh about 100,000 years so tell me again how many people in the study group? And if this is a TRUE STUDY why aren’t we all EXTINCT???”

Finally, there was this statement, “Needless to say, wood fires have been used by humans for thousands of years with no ill effects.”

Well, actually no–while humans have indeed been burning wood for heat and cooking for thousands of years, this practice has also been harming people’s health for thousands of years and continues to do so today.

Signs of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an inflammatory disease state associated with breathing difficulty and sputum, have been found in Egyptian mummies and in a 1,600-year-old Alaskan mummy. Notes one researcher, “COPD secondary to exposure to open wood fires while cooking is still an important cause of COPD in many countries, and probably has been a cause of COPD ever since fire was introduced for cooking.”

In the Western world, we tend to romanticize ancient practices, including burning wood. However, there is nothing romantic about hacking up mucus, wheezing, and being out of breath. People in developing countries in Asia, South America, and Africa who rely on burning even today continue to develop COPD at alarming rates.

Because we are dedicated to education about the harmful effects of wood smoke, we at Families for Clean Air find such comments from readers to be disheartening.

Luckily, the tide seems to be turning, and there were also comments in response to this article that gave us hope: “Have the people that think wood smoke is healthy even read the article?” asks one commenter. (This question also occurred to us, and the answer is likely, “No.”) And another reader could have been speaking for us, writing, “Newsflash–smoke of any kind is harmful.”

Fireplaces Without the Pollution

In eco-conscious Northern California “wood-burning fireplaces are becoming obsolete.” So proclaimed the San Francisco Chronicle Homes section in a recent cover story on contemporary and cleaner alternatives to wood burning stoves and fireplaces.

These new “eco fireplaces” use clean-burning bioethanol fuel, and, according to one manufacturer, produce no ash, no soot and no smoke. The most cutting edge designs are free-standing with no chimney, pipes, vents, or even walls. There are also inserts that install easily into an existing firebox. All the heat generated by the fire stays in the room, and the flames can be enhanced with “fire objects” such as rocks and brightly colored glass cubes.

For those looking for an art piece as well as a source of heat, there are beautiful and elegant designs from a variety of manufacturers.

We heartily endorse this hot new trend in interior design. These new fireplaces produce the warmth and glow of a traditional fireplace without the negative health and environmental impacts from wood smoke.

Wood Smoke Pollution: Rights and Wrong

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

Most people interpret this quote to mean that no one has a right to do something that will directly hurt someone else: You can swing your fist, but you can’t make contact with someone’s face. After all, no one wants to get punched in the nose.

Here at Families for Clean Air, we think this concept applies to wood smoke pollution as well. All too often, articles about curtailing wood smoke pollution, especially those about the negative impact of fireplace or wood stove use, are greeted with outraged comments extolling the “right to burn” (ignoring the fact that no one has the “right” to burn). Other comments claim that people concerned about wood smoke should mind their own business.

In response to a recent New York Times article about the harmful effects of wood smoke, Brown University Philosophy Professor Felicia Nimue Ackerman opined, “I think that monitoring your friends and neighbors for environmental purity should be the next social crime.”

We’d like to ask Dr. Ackerman a question: When did protecting one’s health and fighting for clean air become a “social crime”? When your neighbor is doing something that harms you and your family, it becomes your business, too. It’s as simple as that.

Scores of studies document the hazards of wood smoke, while others show that wood smoke pollution can enter neighboring houses, even when the windows and doors are shut. This is not about “environmental purity” (although wood smoke is very polluting), it is about the right to breathe the cleanest air possible.

The bottom line? No one has the “right” to burn when their proximity to other houses or buildings means that others will be unwillingly exposed to the toxins they produce when they burn wood.

In other words: Your right to burn wood ends where your neighbor’s nose begins.

The Dangers of Smoke from Woodstoves

The headline was worthy of Fox News, proclaiming dramatically, “Wood Stoves May Cause Cancer, Heart Disease.”

Wait just a minute, that headline was a recent Fox News headline about a study from Copenhagen University in Denmark. The article quotes lead author Steffen Loft, who notes, “In human cells that were exposed to the [wood smoke] particles, substantial DNA damage and mutation took place. It was comparable to the effects of particles given off by traffic.”

Particles were collected from the air in a village with many operating wood stoves and from a village where stove use is low, as well as from wood stoves burning efficiently (high oxygen) and less efficiently (low oxygen). The effects of the particles were tested on cultured human lung and immune cells.

The findings: “[Particulate matter from wood smoke] produces high levels of free radicals, DNA damage as well as inflammatory and oxidative stress response gene expression.” In other words, the wood smoke particles caused more cellular and DNA damage than air without the particles, and these molecular changes could lead to heart disease and cancer.

We at Families for Clean Air were not surprised by the findings, since wood smoke toxicity has been documented extensively. However, we were happily surprised by the prominence of the finding on the Fox News website. (It also merited a brief mention on the website of the LA Times, another mainstream news source.)

The harmful effects of wood smoke pollution are becoming impossible to ignore.

The New Social Stigma of Wood Burning

A round of applause, please, for reporter Christina S. N. Lewis.

“The fireplace, once a point of pride, is now seen as an environmental hazard,” concluded her recent New York Times article (“The Love Affair With the Fireplace Cools”, Jan. 20, 2011). Continuing, Ms. Lewis notes, “Among those who aspire to be environmentally responsible, [the fireplace] is joining the ranks of bottled water and big houses.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. This article represents an encouraging paradigm shift, one that is fully supported by Families for Clean Air. Notably, articles in the Home sections of newspapers often extol the ‘pleasures’ of a roaring fire without mentioning the toxic effects of wood smoke on human health and the environment.

Specifically, the NYT article notes that the American Lung Association “strongly advises people not to use the traditional fireplace” because of the irritating effects of the particulate matter, carcinogens, and gases in wood smoke. It also points out that fireplaces and wood stoves are “major contributors to particulate-matter air pollution in much of the United States.”

We disagree with the article on one point: EPA-certified wood stoves are cited as one way to make wood burning more “environmentally friendly.” However, as we point out in our published response to the article, such stoves still produce far more particulate pollution than appliances that burn natural gas. Further, the actual performance of EPA-certified wood stoves, in terms of particulate pollution, is poorer than expected compared to results obtained in laboratory conditions. In fact, such stoves tend to produce more pollution after years of use than they do when they are new.

Nonetheless, this article chronicles what we hope is the start of a movement away from fireplace use, wood burning, and air pollution towards cleaner and healthier air.