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New Year’s Resolution: Cleaner Air in 2012

Every year during the holiday season, people gather around the fireplace to celebrate with family and friends. Unfortunately, fireplaces are also fire hazards with hot embers or ashes leading to nearly 11,600 residential building fires in the U.S. each year.

While many are aware of the fire danger posed by fireplaces, the hazards posed by wood smoke are just as real, but far less publicized. The EPA notes that fine particles from wood smoke have serious adverse health effects.

Fireplaces and wood stoves are the single largest source of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in many areas in the winter, including the San Francisco Bay Area. Study after study shows that PM2.5 worsens asthma, increases heart attacks, damages lungs, and even leads to death.

This New Year’s Eve, why not skip the fire and the toxic wood smoke?

Instead, raise your glass to good health and clean air in the coming year.

Happy New Year from Families for Clean Air.

Washington State Grants Target Communities Impacted by Wood Smoke

Residents in Washington communities that are heavily impacted by wood smoke may soon be breathing a little easier thanks to $2.4 million in grants from the state of Washington’s Department of Ecology.

Families for Clean Air is pleased to report that many of the grants are not going towards changing out old wood stoves for new ones. Instead, in some areas, the money will help people replace old wood stoves and other high-polluting wood burning devices with cleaner, more efficient heating equipment.

The Olympic Region Clean Air Agency (ORCAA) is offering up to $1,000 to qualified Thurston County residents who want to change to gas or electric heating systems. The program is available to residents who want to replace pre-1995 certified wood stoves and fireplace inserts; uncertified wood stoves and fireplace inserts; or free-standing fireplaces. According to ORCAA, by removing just 60 solid fuel (wood or pellet) burning devices from the community, residents will reduce emissions by 10 tons of PM2.5 per year.

Asking People to Voluntarily Refrain from Wood Burning

The Bay Air Quality Management District has asked people in the 9 county areas around the San Francisco Bay to voluntarily refrain from burning fires in the next few days in order to avoid unhealthful conditions that would trigger a Spare the Air alert.

The Air District’s call for voluntary restraint builds upon the successful strategy used last year, when they asked people not to burn on the days leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas when weather conditions would have trapped wood smoke close to the ground. People responded to the requests, and the region’s air quality did not exceed the national air quality health standards on those holidays, unlike many years in the past.

By expanding the call for voluntary restraint beyond holidays to any day when weather conditions are ripe for wood smoke to linger, the Air District can further protect public health.  This is a carrot and stick approach: If people voluntarily refrain from burning during stagnant weather conditions, they are rewarded with cleaner air to breathe, fewer trips to the emergency room due to asthma or heart attacks, and their neighbors’ appreciation. If people don’t reduce their burning, then a Spare the Air alert is triggered, imposing a mandatory ban on wood burning and minimum $400 fines for those who don’t comply.

The consequences of wood smoke pollution are borne by everyone, not just those who fail to heed mandatory curtailments. However, we at Families for Clean Air applaud the District’s success so far in heading off Spare the Air alerts with requests for voluntary restraint. This is an encouraging and positive step toward protecting public health.

Montreal Pledges $6M to Reduce Wood Smoke

Families for Clean Air applauds the recent move by the city of Montreal to start a $6 million rebate program for homeowners who remove their fireplace or wood stove, or replace them with alternatives that burn cleaner fuel such as propane or natural gas. The rebate program is the latest step by the city to improve its air quality–two years ago, Montreal banned the installation of new wood burning fireplaces and stoves, recognizing that wood burning is a major source of air pollution and causes serious health problems.

We particularly liked this quote from the article: “If you consider that using a wood-burning stove for nine hours generates the same quantity of fine particles as a car does in one year, you can understand that this program will make a major improvement in Montreal’s air quality.”

We’d like to see U.S. cities and counties where wood smoke is a significant contributor to air pollution, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, adopt similar rebate programs. Replacing old wood burning stoves with new wood burning stoves, even if they are EPA certified, is not the answer, because they still emit particulate pollution, dioxin and other toxins.

Wood Smoke is Unhealthy—Even for Healthy People

Despite the many reports documenting its toxic effects, many people still express skepticism that exposure to wood smoke is harmful to healthy adults. They seem to think that it only affects people who already have lung or heart problems.

An interesting new study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine reveals that smoke from burning wood affects even healthy adults. The 10 study subjects did not report overt symptoms, such as wheezing, after exposure to the smoke, but lung and blood tests showed increased numbers of immune cells, which are indicators of inflammation. The authors conclude that wood smoke exposure leads to both pulmonary (lung) and systemic (whole body) inflammation.

In general, inflammation is a response to physiological damage and serves as an indicator that the body is responding to damage. In this case, damage is most likely induced by wood smoke particles and the associated toxins. Notably, inflammation is associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung condition that is characterized by shortness of breath. In addition, systemic inflammation is linked to both heart disease and stroke.

In short, this study clearly shows that wood smoke is not only harmful to populations we know are vulnerable, like infants, the elderly, and people with lung and heart disease. The bottom line is that wood smoke is harmful to everyone.