Though the recent freezing weather may seem like the worst time to call a wood-burning ban, the scientific evidence documenting the harm caused by wood smoke pollution justifies such restrictions.
As a physician, I know all too well the health impacts caused by toxic smoke. Breathing these particles can literally shorten life and send our most vulnerable residents to the emergency room. Wood smoke contains harmful microscopic particles that, when inhaled, enter directly into the lung and bloodstream. Once there, they damage cells, exacerbate asthma and cause lung and heart disease. For asthmatic children, breathing wood smoke can lead to immediate harm, including asthma attacks and respiratory distress.
A recent study by the California Air Resources Board reported that wood smoke can cause a 10 percent increase of hospital admissions for respiratory problems among children, who are at most risk since their lungs are still developing. Exposure to wood smoke may also reduce lung function and reduce the blood’s ability to clot properly.
And it doesn’t take much; one fireplace or wood-burning stove can produce levels of smoke in a neighborhood that exceed federal air quality standards and affect all the neighbors. According to the California Air Resources Board, up to 70 percent of smoke from chimneys can re-enter neighboring residences, exposing neighbors to toxic smoke. While we have effectively banned tobacco smoke from most indoor places, there is no way to avoid an equally damaging smoke right at home. Unfortunately, without a stronger wood-burning regulation, community health suffers.
It is important to note that the current regulation allows an exemption for wood burning when no other source of heat is available.
While some may not see it this way, in actuality it is the wood smoke, not the wood burning regulation, that is invasive. There are an estimated 935,000 residents in the Bay Area who suffer from asthma, including 200,000 children and an additional 300,000 who struggle to breathe from emphysema, lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses. When these people have to breathe wood smoke pollution, they struggle even more.
The American Lung Association routinely receives calls from citizens all around the Bay Area who simply cannot get away from clouds of pollution in their own neighborhoods. Many have young children with asthma who need medical treatment due to this exposure. Some of these families have sold their houses and moved to areas with less wood smoke pollution.
Are these health impacts really worth the ambiance of a fire? Fireplaces are inefficient heaters, often taking out more warm air than they produce. Cleaner burning alternatives are available to enjoy the warmth and glow without the smoke, including gas, electric and pellet stoves, which are now designed to look just like their wood-burning brethren.
The American Lung Association repeatedly has given failing grades for air quality to several counties in the Bay Area due to high levels of particle pollution, of which wood smoke is a primary source. We know we can do better. Indeed, air districts such as Sacramento that have adopted wood-burning prohibitions have experienced a reduction in these harmful particles.
Hopefully, after understanding the harm caused by wood smoke pollution, local residents will think twice before lighting their fireplaces and wood stoves. Many already have. By choosing to hold off and use cleaner alternatives to heat our homes, we make it easier for our smallest and most vulnerable residents to breathe.
We’re trying to make our neighborhoods healthier and prevent disease. Won’t you help us?
(Pepper is a family practice physician and American Lung Association volunteer who teaches family medicine at the UC Davis-affiliated Family Practice Residency in Martinez.)