Asthma and wood-burning stoves: A heated issue

2010-02-10T00:00:00Z Asthma and wood-burning stoves: A heated issueBy Larry S. Posner Napa Valley Register
February 10, 2010 12:00 am  • 

The discussion regarding wood-burning fireplaces has been a heated issue (excuse the pun) in Napa County. On July 9, 2008, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board adopted Regulation 6, Rule 3,

to limit emissions of particulate matter from wood-burning devices. Seventeen Bay Area counties and cities have adopted this regulation. Napa County and the city of Napa are not among them.

Local responses and comments both in the recent local news media and public hearings have been very disappointing. There is a realistic concern for maintaining the health of our populace and particularly our children. This regulation is not a direct consequence of bureaucrats and politicians trying to intrude on your personal lifestyle. Rather, it stems from physicians, like your own, who try to keep you healthy and address public heath risks. I volunteer my time as a founding director for the Napa County Asthma Coalition, a nonprofit organization committed to the respiratory health of people.

There is no doubt that airborne particulates are a significant cause of asthma exacerbation, and wood burning is the major contributor to these particulates. I spoke recently to one of the nation’s leading asthma researchers, Dr. Harold Nelsen of Denver, who was quite surprised when I told him of the prevalence of wood-burning fireplaces in Napa County. It seems that in Denver, despite its subfreezing temperatures, almost all fireplaces have been converted to gas.

I have little doubt that if we were targeting industry for polluting our air, the response would be quite different. Make no mistake: outdoor air pollution in the winter is not from industrial waste or automobile pollution. Wood-burning fireplaces and stoves account for 50 percent to 80 percent of the source of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5). These are critical particles because they are small enough to bypass the body’s normal defense mechanisms and are inhaled deeply into the lungs, can be absorbed into the bloodstream and can subsequently increase plaque formation in the coronary arteries.

Some have argued that this affects just a few people. Here are the facts: 15 percent to 17 percent of our children will have asthma at some time before their 17th birthday. In the June 2007 report, “The Burden of Asthma in California,” published by the state of California, Napa County had the second-highest rate of asthma in the state. Asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis are all common medical conditions in adults. These are not insignificant health problems. Approximately

60 people, including two-to-three children, die every week from asthma in the United States. Data shows the hospitalization of children with asthma increases 10 percent with high PM 2.5. I personally manage many of these kids in Napa County, and I can speak to this first hand.

Does this affect every person with asthma? Of course not. It is also possible to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day for 50 years and not get lung cancer, either. Staying inside doesn’t solve the problem. Research has detailed that 50 percent to

70 percent of smoke from a fireplace can be taken up in neighboring homes.

PM 2.5 has been measured in the city of Napa for the past three years. In 2007, we ranked seventh out of eight stations in the Bay Area. In 2008, we ranked eighth. In 2009, we did better, ranking sixth of 12, primarily due to a very rare warm January when temperatures peaked in the 80s. Studies in Sacramento have demonstrated a 10 percent decrease in PM 2.5 by banning fireplaces, and

25 percent decrease by banning all wood burning. It is a sad statement that people seem minimally deterred because of lax fine enforcement, rather than doing the right thing.

Spare the Air days apply to all wood-burning in fireplaces and agricultural burns.

Keep in mind two things. One: If you have no other form of heat, this regulation does not apply to you. Two: There have only been seven Spare the Air days so far this winter. Currently, for the other 98 percent of the days, there is no legal restriction.

All that is being asked is that on the days when air quality is unhealthy, that folks show a little sensitivity and compassion for the cardio-respiratory heath of our community.

On the other 350-plus days of the year when fires are allowed, keep in mind that EPA-certified fireplaces and pellet stoves emit 75 percent less PM. Dry hardwood produces less smoke and burns hotter. Do not burn wet or treated woods.

There have been a number of public health successes addressing air quality, like getting the elimination of leaded gasoline, regulations controlling industrial pollution and banning cigarette smoking in public venues. This is no different. There are no individual “rights” when they infringe on the health of others.

(Posner, a medical doctor, is director of the Napa County Asthma Coalition.)

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