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My view: Wood burning pollutes more than cars

By Brian Moench

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 22 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Wood smoke is just as dangerous and should be just as unacceptable as community-wide secondhand cigarette smoke.

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We live in a desert, and water conservation is paramount to a livable future in Utah. Water conflicts between stakeholders in Western states are becoming bitter struggles for survival. Suppose your neighbor was using 60,000 times the amount of water you were using and not paying a dime more than you. Suppose furthermore, the same neighbor was even stealing some of your water because no laws prohibited it. Unless you favor anarchy, you would say to yourself, "There ought to be a law."

Besides living in a desert, we also live in bowl, an air pollution bowl. Like a limited water supply we also have a confined airshed. If one business or one person pollutes far more than his share, everyone is affected.

Studies show that depending on the type of wood stove or fireplace, a home using wood for heat will emit between 3,000 and 90,000 times more pollution than a natural gas furnace. No one disputes that reduced vehicle use is critical to reducing air pollution. But burning one cord of wood produces as much carcinogenic particles as 1,000 cars during a 65 mile commute. If all of us heated our homes with wood, our air pollution would make Beijing look like the Garden of Eden.

Those people who vehemently defend their right to emit such a disproportionate amount of pollution should pause and consider what they are doing to their own health and that of their family and neighbors. Wood smoke is highly toxic, especially for those who are doing the burning. Particles in wood smoke are extraordinarily small, more so than the typical particulate matter regulated by the federal government and for which much of the Wasatch Front is in violation of the standards. Particles from wood smoke range from 0.2 microns at the start of the burn to .05 microns as the burn cycle progresses. Particles of this size behave like gases. There is no practical way to prevent wood smoke from seeping into nearby homes. You really should ask your neighbors’ permission before you light up your fireplace.

Just as particles this tiny can more easily seep into any home, they are also easily inhaled into anyone's lungs, and then distributed by the blood throughout the body, causing inflammation and biologic disruption as they go. Attached to these tiny particles are at least 200 of the most toxic compounds known — dioxins, furans, formaldehyde, PAHs and heavy metals. The EPA estimates that a single fireplace operating for an hour, burning 10 pounds of wood, will generate 4,300 times more PAHs than 30 cigarettes.

Further, free radicals produced from wood smoke are chemically active for 20 minutes compared to just 30 seconds for tobacco smoke. Wood smoke free radicals then can attack our bodies’ cells up to 40 times longer once inhaled. The EPA estimates that the lifetime cancer risk from wood stove smoke is 12 times greater than that from an equal volume of secondhand tobacco smoke.

No state is more aware of air pollution issues than California. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District estimates that more than $1 billion in medical expenses are caused by wood smoke in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The medical science is very clear. Just like with cigarettes, there is no “safe” level of air pollution. One microgram of particle pollution is just as harmful if emitted on a clear day as it is if emitted during a socked-in inversion. We don’t declare “green" or "yellow" cigarette days in public venues so a few people can light up. Designating “green, yellow and red burn” days for fireplaces makes no medical sense. We should eliminate wood burning all year round.

Wood smoke is just as dangerous and should be just as unacceptable as community-wide secondhand cigarette smoke. Even if we all chipped in to buy natural gas furnaces for those who otherwise could not afford it, eliminating wood smoke would be the easiest, cheapest and least disruptive way to seriously clean up our air. Wood smoke is the air pollution “elephant in the room.” Yes, there ought to be a law.

Dr. Brian Moench is the president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists and a member of the radiation and health committee for the Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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