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  • 16 Sep 2014

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Woodstoves may be as toxic as cigarettes

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JIM CLARK - Even certified woodstoves - depending on how well theyre maintained and operated - may produce hazardous emissions inside a home. If you protect your children (and yourself) from breathing cigarette smoke, you also may want to steer clear of wood smoke.

Chemically speaking, they are very much the same.

Wood smoke is now known to be as harmful as cigarette smoke. As one physician said, “it isn’t the nicotine in cigarettes that kills you — it’s the particulates.”

Wood smoke and cigarette smoke share in common more than 100 chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, dioxin and heavy metals.

Yes, we’ve been burning wood since the dawn of time, since the days when our lifespans were short and the impact was small and there were very few of us. But in a densely populated urban environment, should we rethink this uncontrolled source of air pollution?

As our understanding of human health and the environment have evolved, we’ve altered many of our behaviors from those early days.

Our freedom to emit smoke without restriction is one of the only ways remaining that citizens are legally able to seriously impact the health of others.

Health impacts of smoke

Hundreds of studies show how hazardous wood smoke is to human health. Many chemicals in smoke are human carcinogens or serious respiratory irritants. The connection of wood smoke inhalation to asthma, allergies, bronchitis, COPD and lung cancer is easy to understand, but some more surprising impacts include:

• Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Toxics Report ranks wood smoke as one of Portland’s top three sources of toxic air pollution, along with diesel and industrial sources.

• The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates lifetime cancer risk from wood smoke is 12 times higher than exposure to a similar amount of cigarette smoke.

• A single fireplace burning 10 pounds of wood in one hour generates 4,300 more cancer-causing chemicals than 30 cigarettes.

• The hazardous free radicals in wood smoke are chemically active more than 40 times longer than cigarette smoke.

• Walls don’t keep smoke out of your home. Smoke sinks and seeps back inside through tiny cracks, so the smoke concentration inside is up to 70 percent of the amount outside the house.

Environmental impacts

The United Nations ranks wood fires the second-leading cause of global warming. Black soot from burning absorbs solar heat and warms the atmosphere. Smoke particles settle on glacial ice and snow and cause them to melt. Think Mount Hood snowpack as well as polar cap ice. Smoke eventually settles and the toxic components impact rivers, streams and soil.

Portland lags behind our neighbors to both the north and south in protecting public health and the environment. If a Portlander’s health is impacted by wood smoke, they are on their own to attempt to negotiate a solution, or must move their family to find clean air.

Others doing more

What are others doing about it?

California is the first state to require firewood to have a warning label, similar to the one on a pack of cigarettes. You’ll see this label on much of the packaged wood sold in Oregon. Many California cities use burn bans, warnings, fines and public education to reduce wood smoke pollution.

Montreal determined that 1,000 people each year die from particulate pollution and banned wood-burning devices in new construction. That will be followed by a total ban on residential burning in 2020.

Puget and Pierce counties in Washington have programs like “Air on the Safe Side,” with burn bans, public awareness campaigns, text messages to burners, penalties of up to $1,000, and assistance to get rid of old wood-burning devices. They also released the video “Where There’s Smoke There’s Sickness.”

The Lane Regional Air Protection Agency in Springfield offers a wood-stove change-out and complaint response program that helps people impacted by smoke find solutions.

This winter, the Salt Lake City-based Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment called for a total wood-burning ban within city limits, calling wood smoke the “Air Pollution Elephant in the Room.”

The United Nations asked Western nations to stop burning wood for heat as a public health initiative, as well as a climate change strategy.

Better stoves not the answer

Are EPA-certified woodstoves the answer? In a word, no.

In fact, last year Oregon joined several other states in a lawsuit against the EPA because standards for woodstoves haven’t been updated in 25 years. Stove efficiency is highly vulnerable to user practices, and, even in the best cases, degrades over time.

As a result, many certified stoves are nearly as polluting as noncertified stoves. Certified stoves were intended to substantially cut wood smoke pollution. However, results have been disappointing.

In order to truly reduce wood-smoke pollution and the health and environmental impacts, trading a wood-burning device for a natural-gas stove is the way to go.

Debra Taevs, who lives in Portland, has a masters degree in environmental policy and formerly worked for the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center.