Thursday, November 29, 2012

Air Time: Why all the fuss about wood smoke?

By Rod Tinnemore, Wood Stove Coordinator, Air Quality Program

Ah, the smell of wood smoke. It brings back memories of camp fires and family holiday gatherings for some. For others, it brings memories of trips to the hospital, of lungs burning for air and the sensation of drowning. But humanity has lived with fires for untold centuries so wood smoke must be “natural” and “healthy,” right?Arsenic and mercury are also naturally occurring, but they can be far from harmless.

The issue with wood smoke is not the smell; it’s the tiny particles in the smoke.These very small particles are at least 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.As you breathe smoke, these particles go deeply into your lungs and some even enter your blood stream.They are coated with compounds that came from whatever was burned.The more poorly the wood is burned, the greater the number of harmful compounds.These put a stress on both your heart and lungs. And if you have a disease such as Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or diabetes, your inflammation and distress increases.

So if wood smoke is bad stuff, how come we’re not all dead?That’s another error in thinking.Not everything that is bad will kill you quickly.Through most of human history, people have died from causes other than air pollution because populations were smaller and other diseases caused people to die much younger. However, with life expectancies now near or above 80 years old, an increasing number of people are experiencing the long-term effects of air pollution.According to a recent European report, urban air pollution will soon become the biggest cause of premature death.

What if you don’t care about these health concerns? Well, do you have a child or an elderly parent in your home or your neighborhood?They are especially affected.What about a friend or neighbor with asthma or type I diabetes?If any of these apply, then please be concerned about how your actions affect the health of others.Sometimes people tell me, “What I do in my own home is my business!” If only your smoke also stayed inside your own home, I’d be inclined to agree with you. But we all know that is not the case.

The bottom line: Keep wood burning to a minimum, with the right fuel and the right stove settings to reduce wood smoke pollution.We’ll talk more about how to do that in my next blog.

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

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