Guest editorial: Wood burning — it’s time to let it go
September 1, 2015
Old habits and traditions often die hard, even in "advanced" societies. Yes, we no longer throw virgins into volcanoes when we’re bored, we no longer have "duels" to settle personal insults (that’s what the internet is for), and a much smaller percentage of people smoke than did 40 years ago. But some things that make no more sense are still part of our tradition, even when we know better. Take wood burning in fireplaces and stoves for example.
Recently Summit County took a bite out of tradition and a bite out of air pollution and approved a bold new ordinance that would prohibit solid fuel burning devices (think wood and coal in stoves and fireplaces) in new construction. This is an important step forward to cleaning our air, and we will all be better off for it.
Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment have spent the last eight years bringing public attention to the enormous body of medical research revealing how damaging air pollution is to public health. In Utah there is now widespread recognition that our sometimes "worst air pollution in the country" can no longer be tolerated. In fact recent polls show air pollution is the issue of greatest concern to Utah adults.
When thinking of air pollution, most people think immediately of smoke stacks and tail pipes. But in many urban areas wood burning fireplaces and appliances in homes and restaurants are major sources of air pollution. In Salt Lake City, during the winter, they contribute about as much as all our cars. One household burning wood for heat will create as much pollution as about 400 commuting cars. But that’s just the beginning.
Not all air pollution is created equal. Wood smoke is uniquely toxic, for most people the most toxic type of air pollution they ever inhale. The EPA estimates that the lifetime cancer risk from wood smoke is twelve times greater than that from an equal volume of second hand tobacco smoke. Particles in wood smoke are extraordinarily small, behaving essentially like gases, making them easier to inhale but less likely to be exhaled. They are then distributed by the blood throughout the body, causing inflammation and biologic disruption wherever they go.
Attached to these tiny particles are hundreds of the most toxic compounds known–dioxins, furans, formaldehyde, heavy metals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). One fireplace burning 10 pounds of wood in an hour will generate as many PAHs as 6,000 packs of cigarettes. No one in their right mind, even smokers, would think exposing themselves to 6,000 packs of smoldering cigarettes every hour during a cozy winter evening would be a good idea.
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Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in your chimney doesn’t stay in your chimney. The tiny size of wood smoke particles means they easily penetrate your neighbors’ homes, causing them to breathe dramatically higher pollution levels than are recorded at the local monitoring station.
If your neighbor is a wood burner, the rest of the community can be enjoying clean air, and you can literally be plagued by Beijing, China levels of pollution. And if your neighbor follows current rules, burns only during "green" days, you can go an entire winter without enjoying a single day of clean air.
It is a common misconception that burning wood is carbon neutral and climate friendly. Black carbon particles in the atmosphere absorb heat and are a significant global warming "forcer." Burning wood releases carbon immediately, when we can least afford to do so, and the amount of carbon released per unit of energy produced is actually greater for wood than it is for fossil fuels. Microscopic smoke particles also cause accelerated melting of our snow pack, something a skiing community should consider an anathema.
Lastly, the people harmed the most by burning wood, are the burners themselves and their families, especially their kids. Their homes are contaminated by deadly PAHs far more than non-burners. If you don’t smoke, burning wood is probably the worst thing you can do to your own health. As Elsa sings in the movie Frozen, it’s time to "Let it go."
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