Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Air Time: Just Don't Breathe

By Rod Tinnemore, Wood Stove Coordinator, Air Quality Program

Humans have always lived in an ocean of air. For the bulk of our history, we’ve never given a thought to our ability to take another breath. If there is a fire, the wind eventually blows the smoke so it “disappears” and we keep breathing. We put items into the flames and only ashes come out. Most of it “disappears.”It must be magic! Or at least these are our beliefs.

We may forget, however, that air flows between neighbors, towns, states and countries.Why would we object to polluting a neighbor’s water but ignore polluting a neighbor’s air? Our neighbor may have a choice about using that water, but breathing isn’t a choice. Believe it or not, I’ve had callers suggest that if their neighbors don’t like wood smoke “just tell them not to breathe.”

Air quality, like water quality, is affected by human and natural activity. There are nearly three times as many people living in Washington now as when I was born here. Areas that had one home on each 5- to 10-acre tract now have hundreds. There have also been tremendous increases in traffic and industry, yet technology has greatly reduced the air pollution from many sources. But neither technology nor perception has kept pace with the increased number of people polluting the air from their homes.People continue to burn outdoors and indoors as if neighbors are far away instead of right next door.

Air quality can also be very location dependent. Many areas of the U.S. experience seasons of calm called air stagnation.For many western states, that season occurs during the coldest winter days when wood stove use is the highest. Wood smoke rides layers of cold air and remains near the ground, sometimes for days or longer. I’ve had calls from folks telling me that “my elderly parents are trapped in their home on winter nights because there is so much smoke that they can’t breathe if they go out.” Just don’t breathe, Grandpa?

Like it or not, air is a shared resource. Solving a home heating problem by creating a wood smoke pollution problem is not an adequate solution. Neither is suggesting that people either freeze or don’t breathe. In the weeks ahead I will discuss how to reduce the pollution from a wood stoves and share some facts about wood smoke and your health.

For more information, see Wood Stoves, Fireplaces, Pellet Stoves and Masonry Heaters

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