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.