Moench: Wood burning is a killer, and Utah needs to admit it

First Published      Last Updated Mar 06 2015 05:06 pm

"Smoke [from my neighbor] is filling my house. Here goes the throat closing, here comes the chest hurting, here comes the headache."

"My pulmonary doctor told me to avoid wood smoke at any cost, telling me [it] was damaging my lungs. Yet here I sit, a prisoner in my own smoke-filled house. What can I do? Is there no law against wood smoke invading one's space?"

"I don't even have to smoke to get cancer now! You wood stove owners are doing that for me!"

"I just sit in my house like a trapped prisoner to the [wood] smoke. Sometimes I just cry. Sometimes I will get in my car and try to get away from the smoke. This year is worse than last because more people are burning more than ever."

"To get the smell of the [neighbor's] wood smoke out of our house, we removed and replaced the carpeting, ductwork, the furnace and air conditioning unit, and cleaned all surfaces including the walls. Mattresses and pillows were discarded. ... It was an expensive project."

"About 15 wood stoves within 1,000 feet of my house. My house smells like a barbecue in my living room. I could not buy my way out of my situation. Instead, for three years, I left my house every night for six months to avoid the smoke."

These are just a few of the many stories sent to Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment by people whose lives have become a nightmare from neighbors burning wood in stoves, fireplaces, fire pits and boilers. Many were too intimidated to appear in person at the recent DAQ hearings where hundreds of angry burners, and the wood burning appliance industry, showed up in force denouncing a curtailment of their "right" to burn wood. What DAQ didn't get was a scientific defense of wood burning — because there isn't any. Below is a simplified primer on the science of wood smoke.

1. Wood burning is not "5 percent of the problem." Counting the type of particulate pollution responsible for most of the health consequences, wood burning and grilling is 38 percent of the overall problem, vehicles are only 35 percent.

2. If your neighbor is a wood burner, he/she is about 90 percent of "your problem." Wood smoke concentrates heavily near its source. On a clear, "green burn" day, if your neighbor is burning wood you can experience levels of pollution 100 times greater than what shows up at the nearest monitor, literally as much as Beijing. Furthermore, if your neighbor is a wood burner and follows all the current rules, you can go an entire winter without a single day of clean air, inhaling more toxins than if your neighbor was an oil refinery.

3. An average house heated with wood emits as much pollution as driving between 90-400 cars all winter. We require emissions tests for all those cars, but not the wood stove. Why?

4. If you're burning, you're smoking. Wood smoke is by far the most toxic form of pollution that most people ever experience, 12-40 times more likely to cause cancer than second hand cigarette smoke. Burning ten pounds of wood for one hour emits as many deadly chemicals as 6,000 packs of cigarettes. When all that goes up your chimney, it seeps back into your own house and the homes of all your neighbors. It's like your whole neighborhood is smoking, including infants and children. "Responsible Burning" is more an oxymoron than "Responsible Smoking." You can smoke without hurting others, not so with wood burning.

5. That "EPA certified" wood stoves are the answer is industry propaganda. They are still much more polluting than other options, and regarding the really toxic compounds ­— dioxins, furans, PAHs and metals — they may emit even more than an older wood stove. And their "cleaner performance" rapidly deteriorates over time.

The greatest beneficiaries of a wood burning ban? The burners themselves, and even more so their children. Their own homes have much higher concentrations of deadly, cancer causing chemicals than non-burning homes. Utah finally passed a law protecting children from second hand cigarette smoke in cars. For all the same reasons, it is even more important that kids and pregnant mothers not be exposed to first or second hand wood smoke — ever.

Dr. Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.