The Health Dangers of Wildfires Are Well Known, Why Not Biomass?
For many Americans, particularly in the western United States, the start of summer also means the height of wildfire season. In this month alone, wildfires blaze in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, California, Montana and other western states. We can see the direct destruction that wildfires cause. We also track the harmful wildfire smoke that can threaten the lives and health of firefighters, as well as people living hundreds of miles away.
Harm from wildfires we get. But do you know that some of the same threats to our health come from intentionally burning wood and other plant-based products – collectively known as biomass – to fuel our electricity needs? This goes well beyond wood-burning fireplaces used to keep homes warm. Biomass burning power plants generate electricity on a large-scale right here in the U.S. - and they endanger our health in the process.
What is biomass? The category includes wood products, agricultural residues (think chicken poop) or forest waste, and other highly toxic feed stocks such as construction and demolition waste. Burning these materials as fuel for electricity pollutes the air we breathe.
One major pollutant produced from burning biomass is also one of the most dangerous: particle pollution, also known as soot. These particles are so small that they can enter and lodge deep in the lungs, triggering asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and even death. Burning biomass also releases carbon monoxide, leading to headaches, nausea, dizziness, and in high concentrations, premature death. What's more, burning biomass for electricity also produces nitrogen oxides (like nitrogen dioxide) and nasty cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene and formaldehyde.
While these pollutants are harmful to us all, they pose even greater health risks for millions of more vulnerable Americans, such as infants and children, older adults, individuals with respiratory or cardiovascular disease, and diabetics. Too often, power plants are located where lower income communities live or work. Because of this, people in lower income communities are even more vulnerable to these pollutants.
Fortunately, cleaner electricity sources that pose far less harm to public health exist and are readily available. Wind and solar are widely used to provide electricity to the nation without polluting the air Americans breathe. In fact, the U.S. is the world's largest producer of electricity from wind and has tripled our wind production since 2008.1 Replacing dirtier fuels like coal, oil, natural gas and biomass with increased reliance on wind and solar and other truly clean sources of electricity will help reduce air pollution that can trigger asthma attacks and heart attacks, cause cancer and shorten lives. It is crucial that the nation continue to transition to sources of energy that do not endanger human health or contribute to climate change.
You can help! Many people don't realize how unhealthy biomass can be – including decision-makers in Washington, D.C. They need to hear from you that you support strong clean air protections to protect your family's health.
Send a message to your members of Congress urging them to stand up for protections from particle pollution, carbon monoxide and other dangerous air pollutants that come from burning biomass.
As the dog days of summer continue and wildfire season burns on, remember that air pollution remains a threat to all Americans' health. Let's raise awareness of the dangers and health risks of burning biomass to meet our electricity needs. We must urge our leaders to support healthy air for all. Please add your voice to the conversation.
1. U.S. Energy Information Agency. Energy in Brief March 4, 2016.
Related Topic: Healthy Air
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