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Comparing Wood Smoke Pollution to Diesel Exhaust and Tobacco Smoke

After many exhaustive studies and discussions, The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and the California Resources Board (CARB) identified Environmental Tobacco Smoke and Diesel Exhaust as Toxic Air Contaminants (TACs). OEHHA has determined that there are no safe exposure levels for environmental tobacco smoke and particulates from diesel exhaust. So how does wood smoke compare to these other complex pollutants?

FCA recently conducted a direct comparison of the harmful constituents of wood smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves with diesel exhaust and tobacco smoke, and the results are striking. When put side by side, it’s obvious that wood smoke poses many of the same hazards to the public’s health as these two other complex mixtures of pollutants. However, wood smoke has not received the same kind of attention from regulatory agencies like OEHHA, CARB, and the USEPA.

Considering the fact that over one-third of the Bay Area’s winter time particulate pollution comes from wood smoke, it seems obvious that immediate action must be taken to address wood burning in order to protect public health. If it’s going to take more studies and discussions to ensure that wood smoke pollution is reduced in our communities, we say let’s get on with it already!

Pets and Wood Smoke Pollution

Wood smoke isn’t just bad for human health—it’s bad for animal health as well, as noted in a recent Mercury News article.

Our pets breathe the same air we do, so it should come as no surprise that dogs and cats are similarly vulnerable to the particulate pollution and toxic compounds in wood smoke.

Animals may not be able to complain, but asthma symptoms such as wheezing and coughing can alert owners that their pets are having trouble breathing.

The best way to control these symptoms is to make sure the air in your house is as clean as possible by not burning wood (or smoking) and by living in an area that’s free of wood smoke pollution from neighboring properties.

Sam Harris on the Wood Burning Delusion

A recent piece by Sam Harris, The Fireplace Delusion, eloquently addresses the difficulty of convincing people that burning wood is a harmful practice. Harris, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA, is best known for his books and articles that address issues concerning religion, science, tolerance, and society.

Harris points out that many rational, well-educated people love to burn wood, despite the plethora of studies indicating that wood smoke is harmful to human health.

Indeed, wood burning takes on an almost religious status for such people, who choose to believe that the smoke is harmless, regardless of clear evidence to the contrary.

“The case against burning wood is every bit as clear as the case against smoking cigarettes,” notes Sam Harris in a recent blog post, “Indeed, it is even clearer, because when you light a fire, you needlessly poison the air that everyone around you for miles must breathe.”

Harris declares, “It is time to break the spell and burn gas—or burn nothing at all.”

We at Families for Clean Air agree. Please, get the facts. Don’t burn wood.

Researcher Says Wood Burning Not Sustainable

A fascinating article, “Heating and Air Pollution,” discusses the disproportionate contribution of wood smoke to pollution when wood burning is used as a heat source. The author, Marcelo Mena, is the Director of the Center for Sustainability Research at Universidad Andres Bello and performs research on regional air quality and climate modeling.

The bottom line, Mena notes in a follow-up comment to the article, is that current use of wood burning in many developing countries and in the US is not sustainable because it generates orders of magnitude more particulate pollution than other fuel sources.

Mena notes that in Santiago, Chile, just 8 percent of the population uses wood burning stoves, yet the resulting soot makes up 49 percent of air pollution. This is paralleled by findings in the Bay Area, where the number of people who rely on wood stoves for heat is low, yet wood smoke makes up more than 30 percent of winter time air pollution.

Mena also notes that a stringent ban on wood burning on bad air days in the San Joaquin Valley in California led to a remarkable 44 percent reduction in the number of days when the air quality was unhealthful. “In my years working in air pollution,” Mena stresses, “I’ve never seen a single measure with such effectiveness in reducing pollution.”

What are the ramifications for clean air policies? Mena suggests that in cities, where the wood smoke pollution burden adds to that from vehicular pollution, we should think about outright bans in wood burning.


EPA: Wood Burning “Relic from the Past”

EPA Regional Director Jared Blumenfeld was recently interviewed on San Francisco’s KCBS radio, speaking out about the health and environmental hazards of wood smoke pollution. The segment talks about why all wood burning will eventually be banned.

The piece is only a minute long, but definitely worth a listen:

Wood Smoke Radio Segment