Op-Ed: Wood Burning Is the New Secondhand Smoke

How to have a neighborhood conversation about wood burning in Marin.

By Karen Licavoli Farnkopf

We have observed many Winter Spare the Air Alerts this season. As most of us already know, when a Winter Spare the Air Alert has been issued, wood burning is prohibited.

As someone who has asthma and as the mother of a son with asthma, I am thankful for this rule that helps protect my family and the more than one in seven people living in the Bay Area who suffer from respiratory illness. It also helps protect the rest of us from unhealthy exposure to the number one source of wintertime air pollution – wood smoke.

Now – let’s get down to the nitty gritty of wood burning. Most of us don’t like to be told what we can’t do in our own house. On the other hand, we generally like to accommodate the comfort and health of our friends and neighbors. For instance, if you visited someone’s house, you would never think to smoke a cigarette inside. Likewise, when you have friends over, they wouldn’t think to smoke inside your home.

It’s hard to believe that only 20 years ago, smoking indoors was commonplace. People smoked in restaurants, on airplanes, at our workplaces and inside our homes. But as we learned more and more about the deadly danger of secondhand smoke, we accommodated for the health and comfort of our friends, families and co-workers. Eventually, all indoor work environments in California became smoke-free. And most people started thinking twice about smoking in other people’s homes.

Wood smoke is very similar to second-hand smoke. It contains many of the same carcinogens and toxins. On cold, still winter nights, a house with a fire in the fireplace is like a house smoking a pack of cigarettes. The smoke goes into the neighborhood and “hangs around” – sometimes for days. Several days and nights of these conditions can cause particulate pollution to build up to unhealthy levels. When this happens, people with respiratory issues experience serious breathing problems.

This winter, the Bay Area has seen 10 Winter Spare the Air Alerts, including a stretch of four days in a row. To prevent pollution from building up to unhealthy
levels in our neighborhoods, it’s important for us to talk to each other about wood smoke. These conversations can be informative and friendly. Encourage your neighbors to check before they burn to make sure it’s not a Winter Spare the Air Alert.

And, if you live in a community with a homeowner’s association, you can ask the association to get the word out to the neighborhood. You can remind people that it’s easy to sign up for email or phone alerts at www.sparetheair.org, or by calling 1-877-4NO BURN.

So start a conversation in your neighborhood, and help protect the air in and around your home from the “other” secondhand smoke.

Karen Licavoli Farnkopf is a San Anselmo mom and the vice president of program deveopment for Breathe California.

Here since 1970 February 21, 2013 at 08:39 PM
As many believe that 500 lawyers chained to the bottom of the ocean is a good start, Steve, I like your plan. But you omit the largest single winter bonfire of them all here in California, and just about anywhere else other than Marin for that matter: destroying agricultural waste. What else can farmer's do with trainloads of pruned branches, grapevines, fruit pits, nutshells, deadwood, and broken pallets that make up the stuff left over from agricultural operations. This is only the largest single source of revenue in our bankrupt state, btw. Bury the waste? You'd need a hole the size of the Grand Canyon every year. Burn it to make electricity? The co-generation plants were all bought up and shut down by PG&E longago. Make paper or cardboard? Such structural fiber is too coarse for this (but it is used to manufacture charcoal briquettes for your bbq, an even dirtier process than total combustion). So there's obviously only one thing left for us to do to eliminate this massive toxic cloud: issue even more environmental regulations than we have now, making this simple solution obsolete. Then let's shutdown the fireplaces!
CaresAboutHealth February 24, 2013 at 05:17 AM
When, Professor Piers Forster, lead author of the IPPC report on the emissions that are causing climate change: http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ch2.html said: "Reducing emissions from diesel engines and domestic wood and coal fires is a no-brainer as there are tandem health and climate benefits," "If we did everything we could to reduce these emissions we could buy ourselves up to half a degree less warming, or a couple of decades of respite," he added." He's clearly talking about the health of the entire planet, not just "highly sensitive" people! There's a nice video asking people to do just one thing to reduce pollution. Most people who go camping might have a fire for an hour a day a few days a year and the smoke doesn't usually drift into major urban areas. On the other hand, you appear to live in an urban area (otherwise you wouldn't be affected by the burn bans), and your Lopi will emit more PM2.5 pollution in 10 hours than a car does in an entire year. So if there's just one thing you could do ....
Here since 1970 February 24, 2013 at 08:38 PM
So, like, what?, "the health of the entire planet" is affected more by wood smoke generated in an urban area like Marin than in the vastly larger landscape of the non-urban world? (I thought this was about asthma - how did it get derailed into saving the world from global warming?) Anyway, I suggest "there's just one thing you could do" - if you really care about this issue. Move WAY down south where you can continue this "conversation" with the good folks burning down Amazon rain forests everyday of the year. Marin county fireplace users seem a pretty lightweight audience for someone like you, we're less than a hair on a pimple on the rearend of this pollution problem. Since most of us here seem aware and observant of the Spare the Air notices already, gotta wonder what's your real agenda?
CaresAboutHealth February 24, 2013 at 09:05 PM
That's what everyone says! "As one person out of 7 billion, my contribution is insignificant, so it's unfair to ask me to do anything to solve the problem."! The above quote from an expert scientist explains that it's a no brainer because there are tandem health and climate benefits. The health benefits are mainly local - and tangible at anything above 6 or 7 ug/m3 of PM2.5, not the so called "standard" of 35 ug/m3. The Spare the Air helps a bit, but it doesn't avoid all damage to health. The climate benefits are more general, but given the IPCC projections, every bit helps. I thing most people do care about health and the environment, but without simple information such as using a Lopi for 10 hours creates as much PM2.5 pollution as driving a car for a year, it's hard for individuals to do the best they can for the least amount of inconvenience.
Steve Hanson March 01, 2013 at 11:03 PM
No matter how you spin it, wood burning is not a green activity, and is probably the biggest negative impact that an individual can have on the environment and human health. Lots of info about why is here: http://www.familiesforcleanair.org/


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