David Pepper: Burning Wood For Home Heating Is Hazardous To Our Health

(May 30, 2010)

santa_cruz_sentinel

May 30, 2010

David Pepper


With cold weather and the winter season behind us, the American Lung Association in California wishes to remind residents about the harmful effects of wood smoke and urge them to consider cleaner burning alternatives during the months ahead.

As a physician, I know all too well the health impacts caused by toxic smoke. Breathing these particles can literally shorten life and send our most vulnerable residents to the emergency room. Wood smoke contains harmful microscopic particles that when inhaled enter directly into the lung and bloodstream. Once there, they damage cells, exacerbate asthma, and cause lung and heart disease. For asthmatic children, breathing wood smoke can lead to immediate harm, including asthma attacks and respiratory distress.

A recent study by the California Air Resources Board reported that wood smoke can cause a 10 percent increase of hospital admissions for respiratory problems among children, who are at most risk since their lungs are still developing.

And it doesn't take much -- one fireplace or wood burning stove can produce levels of smoke in a neighborhood that exceed federal air quality standards, and affect all the neighbors. According to the California Air Resources Board, up to 70 percent of smoke from chimneys can re-enter neighboring residences, exposing neighbors to toxic smoke.

Currently, there are no regulations restricting this kind of burning in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, and yet the American Lung Association receives many complaints about situations where residents are being exposed to unwanted smoke from their wood burning neighbors.

Two years ago, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District adopted a wood burning regulation that bans wood burning when air quality is poor, but also regulates visible emissions. No one is allowed to pollute their neighbors with wood smoke.

Although Monterey and Santa Cruz counties enjoy overall clean air -- and have received top grades for clean air in the Lung Association's annual State of the Air report for ambient ozone and particle pollution -- many local residents continue to be exposed to high levels of pollution in their neighborhoods. We know we can and must do better.

In Monterey and Santa Cruz counties alone, an estimated 52,000 residents suffer from asthma, including 16,000 children, and an additional 28,000 who struggle to breathe from emphysema, lung cancer, and other respiratory illnesses. When these people have to breathe wood smoke pollution, they struggle even more.

Are these health impacts really worth the ambience of a fire when cleaner burning options are available? If you must burn, there are steps you can take to significantly reduce the smoke and toxics produced by your fireplace or woodstove, including building a hot fire with clean, dry wood, and making sure the fire receives plenty of air by limiting the use of air dampers, especially at night. Additionally, the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District has a rebate program to encourage the change-out of polluting wood heaters.

Hopefully, after understanding the harm caused by wood smoke pollution, local residents will think twice before lighting their fireplaces and polluting wood stoves.

David Pepper is a family practice physician. He teaches family medicine at the UC Davis-affiliated Family Practice Residency in Martinez and is a volunteer of the American Lung Association in California.