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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.

Citizen February 14, 2013 at 03:33 PM
Thank you for this important article. Many people don't realize that wood smoke is harmful to human health, so it's important to have this conversation. There is lots of good information online (just Google "wood smoke" and "health effects") or see: http://familiesforcleanair.com.
Steve B February 14, 2013 at 04:23 PM
You NIMBYs would rather use electric heat made outside of Marin, possibly as far as Arizona by dirty coal OR natural gas piped up from Mexico instead of producing our energy use locally?!?! Parhetic lack of logic. Now, don't get me wrong, no burn days should be observed, but there is a slippery slope here where even wood-fired kitchens would be outlawed. Personally, I use the Spare the Air app that I got off the baaqmd's website to check before I burn. Just remember, most of Marin's resources are piped, trucked, or wired in. We live a most unsustainable life here... Don't get all pious about public policy when we send our polution elsewhere already.
michael February 14, 2013 at 10:23 PM
It's very interesting how more and more we discover that the best things in life are just killing us. In the last 100 years this planet has become one of the least pleasurable places imaginable. Whether it be food, the scent of an open fire, alcohol, alcohol, drugs that keep folks alive and save their lives, even the smell of perfume (one of the latest disorders) it's bad. We've become so obsessed with what is bad for us that I suspect the real killer of we humans are our obsessions themselves. As that Jewish guy told us 2000 years ago, as a man thinks so it is. Maybe the contemporary translation ought to read "as a person obsesses, so it is.
Rico February 15, 2013 at 05:08 AM
michael, The sad fact is that most people don't really know what is killing them. So, they blame every medical problem on tobacco or burning wood for heat. If people would open their eyes and realize what is going on, then they would change their diet, attitude, move out of urban areas, drive autos less, avoid pharmaceutical drugs and western medicine, get excercise, get sleep, avoid stress, avoid science fiction on the internet, don't pay attention to the BAAQMD , the CDC, WHO, FBI, DHS, DEA, CIA, FDA, Monsanto, the president or the mainstream corporate media. Now that would improve the health of the citizens and the economy of the nation ! But to think that will ever happen is just a pipedream, most people are not very smart.
Here since 1970 February 15, 2013 at 09:06 PM
Organize all the homeowners you like, but let's have a "conversation" right now. I'm glad to hear your side of things, so here's mine. Plenty of nice places in California are warm enough in winter that the need to heat homes is minimal at most. Other places are not so warm, and many people in places like Marin prefer to use wood as an alternative, renewable, GREEN! fuel. If your allergies to wood smoke are that serious, I suggest you move. But make sure people there don't like barbecue.
Pat February 15, 2013 at 11:15 PM
And I have been here since 1969, but that doesn't give me the right to subject my neighbors to cancer and lung diseases. I love having a fire, and did so for years until I realized how polluting it can be to our air. Thank you Karen, for taking the time to make more folks aware of the damage done. I converted my old fireplace to a natural gas fireplace recently, and not only is it as enjoyable as a real fire, it is clean and heats my house. The old fireplace just sucked heat up the chimney with a fire burning in it. Time to change. Maybe you should move someplace where you won't affect neighbors.
Here since 1970 February 15, 2013 at 11:53 PM
So much for the "conversation". Good for you if converting to gas is what you want to do. As for me (if it's alright with you) I'll use my fireplace...and if it's not alright with you.
CaresAboutHealth February 16, 2013 at 05:43 AM
If it's a choice between 100 people dying from woodsmoke pollution compared to half a dozen deaths from a much smaller amount of pollution emitted where it does a lot less harm, I'm all for it!!! We require filters on diesel 4WD and sports utility vehicles so they don't pollute and don't harm our health. It's a sad fact that the average wood-burning heater causes more pollution in 9 hours than a mid-size car does in a year - http://www.feuvert.org/why-change/quality Rather than banning them, we should flood the regulators with requests to improve the standards. Diesel pollution was reduced by over 99% by a combination of cleaner-burning engines and filtration systems. The average diesel 4WD now emits about 0.1 kg of PM2.5 per year, compared to 20 to 40 kg for the average wood stove. So the average stove is 200 to 400 times more polluting. If you are willing to add particle traps or filters to your wood-burning stove so that nobody will get sick from its pollution you will have the best of both worlds - a nice fire and neighbors who don't need to complain about it.
Steve B February 16, 2013 at 05:51 AM
Hey Pat, your "natural gas" fire releases radiation in the extraction process. But you don't care because it is not in Marin where gas is mined, do you? There are people in neighboring states with cancer and lung diseases because of you... But, you live here and don't burn wood you pious guy, so you are a good person... How come Marin has no power plants? NIMBYs. How come Marin gets water from Sonoma and Contra Costa? NIMBYs. Aaaargh! Stop being so pious! Unless you grow your own food, are off the grid, and don't have water service, you are a hypocrite! I bet you drive a Prius! Lithium batteries mined by slaves in South America and made in sweat shops in China... But hey, your fire is "clean" so it's all OK, go ahead and preach.
CaresAboutHealth February 16, 2013 at 09:25 PM
Pat isn't a NIMBY - he cares about the greater good for mankind. Those who die & suffer ill-health from gas are only a tiny fraction of those who die/suffer ill-health from woodsmoke. That's why the UN Environment Program & the World Meteorological Assoc recommended developed countries phase out log-burning heaters - http://woodsmoke.3sc.net/greenhouse Prof Piers Forster, lead author of a major IPCC report on climate change stated "Reducing emissions from diesel engines and domestic wood and coal fires is a no-brainer as there are tandem health and climate benefits," http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21033078 There’s no safe level of PM2.5 pollution, the particles are so tiny they infiltrate houses just like the air we need to breathe, even if all doors & windows are shut. In an woodsmoke-affected area with outdoor PM2.5 of just 10 ug/m3 (a fraction of the current Federal limit of 35 ug/m3), HEPA filters reduced woodsmoke concentrations inside houses by 75% & in what were considered healthy volunteers, reduced inflammation & improved blood vessel function, reducing the risk of heart attacks & strokes http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-01/ats-hfr011811.php Fair’s only fair – your wood stove cause more pollution in 9 hours than driving a car for year, but you don’t pay 100s of times more pollution tax on your stove than the car. If you must use it, how about at least buying your neighbors HEPA filters & paying electricity & other running costs?
Steve B February 17, 2013 at 07:07 PM
Hey "Caresabout...,". Are you including the cost of our dead soldiers in your gas statistics? Are you forgetting about HC emmisions from cars? As a cyclist with asthma, I know cars are freaking filthy!!!
CaresAboutHealth February 17, 2013 at 09:15 PM
I thought the wars were over oil and gasoline, not natural gas!. HC emissions may smell, but there's not the same wealth of research that they cause heart attacks, strokes, middle ear infections, genetic damage in babes, reduced IQ when children start school etc. In a Canadian study (median pollution levels 7.3 ug/m3), an increase of just 3 ug/m3 was associated with a 9% increase in deaths from ischemic heart disease and 3-4.5% increases in all deaths. Wood heating is responsible for 61% of Quebec’s PM2.5 emissions. A 3 ug/m3 increase in PM2.5 isn't much - a single fireplace could increase PM2.5 pollution by 3 ug/m3 over at an area of at least 10,000 square yards surrounding the house. In the future, I expect people will be clever enough to develop clean-burning fireplaces, perhaps with a gas boost to light it and boost combustion in either the primary or secondary chamber when the temperature falls below that for optimum burning. That might be clean enough to add filters to trap the rest, so that it’s not much worse than cars or other forms of heating. Unfortunately, nobody will take the time and trouble to develop clean-burning fireplaces until people like you understand the big health benefits from reducing woodsmoke pollution (e.g. http://journals.lww.com/epidem/Fulltext/2008/11001/The_Potential_Impact_of_Residential_Wood_Burning.707.aspx), then admit there’s a problem that needs to be fixed!
Steve B February 18, 2013 at 01:48 PM
OMG! You are so incredibly stupid!!! Do I have to put all the pieces together for you?!?!? Petroleum gives us everything from heating oil to plastics (polymers) to tires to cleaners to asphalt. Yes, the more petroleum we use the more our "Defense" department has to meddle in the affairs of others. Also, there are clean-burning wood-fueled inserts already available. I have had my eyes on a fancy Lopi now for years and have started to convert my fireplace for it already. Aaaaaarrgh! Don't forget about all the enviromental havock we cause getting oil from Alaska or the Gulf. How about South American oil drilling? How filthy and damaging is that? All so you can drive your Prius to Whole Foods and feel like you are GOOD for the planet???!!! Your pious and uneducated attitude have you missing the forest for the trees! Please, say something else lame so I may write more!!!
Steve B February 18, 2013 at 02:07 PM
P.S. The article you quoted from the CA Air Resources Board was "unreviewed" for accuracy by the Board of Epidemiology. Further, our own BAAQMD has made policy based on flawed formulas made by their credential-forging statisticians! They are so pig-headed and pious they kept their policies in place even after the expose! Crazy!
Here since 1970 February 18, 2013 at 03:43 PM
Hey, wait just a minute! I thought the poster's original point was that we have a "conversation" about the importance of no-burn days, which are signaled by among other things emails from the county. But unless I miss something here, this "conversation" has been trending toward that our need to rid our neighbors of the nuisance and danger of fireplaces, or even have fireplace owners invest heavily in some sort of remedial equipment. But one can only wonder about the complaints, are they actually based on nuisance, or even a desire to simply limit others' actions just...well, just because? Surely if an individual has a SERIOUS health issue of any kind, that person will not wait for the rest of us to solve the problem - rather, go ahead and take steps to minimize exposure on one's own behalf. Lots of people install their own HEPA units, or even move to a place like Arizona where allergens are much reduced - wood smoke as well. So read Marin Ordinance 3395, observe those no-burn days, and if you have neighbors who knowingly ignore the regulations, call them out. On the other hand, if you have a real health issue and don't care to protect yourself, I suppose you could also just wait around for someone to develop smokeless firewood.
Steve B February 18, 2013 at 06:40 PM
P.P.S. Natural gas is FAR from clean BTW. Ever heard of fracking? The pollution from woodsmoke is nada compared to the cocktail of carcinogens and lubricants that Haliburton pumps into the ground to get the gas. Once again you NIMBY would rather pollute other places instead of your neighborhood...
CaresAboutHealth February 18, 2013 at 08:52 PM
Steve, If you even look at measured *real-life emissions*, they show that a Lopi puts out about 10 grams of PM2.5 per hour. Use it for 10 hours, that's 100 grams, as much as driving a new diesel 4WD or sports utilty vehicle (today's "trendy" vehicle!) for 20,000 km, about a year's worth of driving. You may call that "clean". I call 10 grams per hour absolutely filthy. 1 gram per hour is pretty filthy. To be clean, you need something that emits less than 0.1 g per hour. You talk about "peer review" but ignore the recommendations of 50 expert scientists from the UN Environment Program and World Environment Program, who screened over 2,000 measures to reduce global warming and improve health. One of the top 16 measures was to phase out log-burning heaters in developed countries. For some reason, you seem to believe you know better than all these scientists & health authorities such as the American Lung Association. I don't have a gas fireplace, I have a 2.6 kW solar array that generates all the additional power I need for my passive solar house. I enjoy cycling for transport, so only use the car when woodsmoke gets above 8 to 10 ug/m3, when breathing the smoke would be much more harmful to my health than the benefits of cycling. I'm aware that the 'fracking' surfactants aren't great , but people need to heat their homes. Gas represent a far smaller environmental threat than the methane, toxic chemicals & black carbon from domestic fireplaces
Kevin Moore February 18, 2013 at 09:41 PM
Marin gets water from Contra Costa? Wow, your data is about 20 years out of date. That was a temporary fix during a drought. Most of Marin's water is from rainfall. Some is from Sonoma.
Kevin Moore February 18, 2013 at 09:44 PM
I LOL at the NIMBY's that take pot shots at people in Marin. If you don't live here, this really is Not in your back yard. I will call you O'NIMBY for "Outsider NIMBY". We don't have any power plants as the nuclear plant on the earthquake fault line was squashed. Why we don't have any tidal power plants is a good question. No windmills? Another good question. Ask the Audubon people. We do have some solar going up at the air port.
Kevin Moore February 18, 2013 at 09:46 PM
Steve, your computer is made of plastic. It is burning up electricity. Stop polluting, turn off your computer.
Steve B February 20, 2013 at 09:42 PM
Kev, I live in Novato which gets 80% of its water from Sonoma. I think we are the most populous town in Marin, but not sure. Besides water, it sounds like you aren't arguing my points about every other resource coming in from out of county.
Steve B February 20, 2013 at 09:45 PM
Kev, I'm not the pious one telling everyone else what they can't do... I'm the one standing up for all points considered, not a narrow and flawed argument.
Steve B February 20, 2013 at 10:00 PM
Well now fortunate one, I have read your points and it is clear now that you are a limo-lefty with the money to live in a perfect home and generate your own solar power, etc. The 99% cannot afford your luxuries. Stop trying to preach a change in public policy that most people cannot afford. For example, a renter in a house with single-pane glass just can't get their landlord to convert the dwelling to the utopian carbon-neutral eco-casa you have. BTW, according to the CDC, wood-burning fires are not anywhere near a top cause of death, single digit percentages at best including lung damage from smoking and work hazards. Your acute problem is not ours- move to Arizona. This whole thing is akin to trying to outlaw peanuts to protect the minority affected by them.
CaresAboutHealth February 20, 2013 at 10:29 PM
Come off it Steve!!! The current price of a solar system is comparable to a Lopi, and you'll save a lot more money and reduce your contribution to global warming a lot more by using it. The only 'double glazing' I have is the stuff you shrink set with a hairdryer - it's affordable and works. It's stuck on to a removable frame which has a rubber strip on the outside to ensure a snug fit - no problem even for a rental property. You complain about the 35 ug/m3 PM2.5 as too weak, forgetting that Beijing averages about 65 ug/m3 - http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2013/02/18/researchers-prove-air-pollution-causes-heart-attacks/ Wood burning is one of those things that seems to have slipped through the cracks because there were only a small number of polluters. The Government regulated diesels, because there were lots of them. It's only when you understand that your Lopi will put out as much PM2.5 in 10 hours as the new average diesel 4WD does in a year that you realize just how bad they are. Not that it will make any difference to you. Clearly the advice of UN Environment Program, the World Meteorological Association and the American Lung Association, and the fact that there are affordable alternatives, are clearly less important that your desire to have a few flickering flames in your living room.
Steve B February 21, 2013 at 02:11 PM
Alright. You're right. I'm wrong. Next time I see a neighbor with a fire I will tell them to put it out. Next time a neighbor BBQs I will tell them to use a microwave. Next time I go camping I will go from campsite to campsite with a shovel and bucket of water to eliminate those damn campfires. Next time I see a farmer burning diseased wood I will tell them how they need to compost instead and use their chi to get rid of the disease. I will then go after backyard fire pits, picket restarants with wood pizza ovens, mass-boycott vacation cabins with fireplaces, condemn hunting cabins with wood heat and tell those savages to cuddle instead of start a fire, I will chew out the firemen and women who clear debris and burn it, I will insist China raises their wall so their PM stays in their country, I will sue mother nature next time she starts a forest fire, then I will know "highly sensitive" people like you are safe. Only after all BBQ pits at the parks are filled in with concrete and the sale of wood made a felony will I rest. The BATF could treat chainsaws like assult rifles as they are now known to be deadly weapons. OR, you could move to Arizona. But not near a golf course, because then you will start a crusade to make grass pollen illegal.
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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