Tag Archives: asthma

[WINTER 2017/2018] Inside the EPA-Certified Wood Stove Debate

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[WINTER 2017/2018] Inside the EPA-Certified Wood Stove Debate

FEATURE ARTICLE: Can EPA Wood Stoves Cut Indoor Air Pollution?

OPINION (PRO): EPA Wood Stoves Reduce Air Emissions

OPINION (CON): EPA Wood Stoves Still Pollute

[OPINION] An Essay on Asthma: Waiting to Exhale

– by Melissa Ham-Ellis


Graphic: drannemaitland.net

I was diagnosed with “adult onset asthma” when I was 36 years old. As a non-smoker, enrolled full-time in nursing curriculum, living in a rural area and, concurrently, teaching dance 2-3 times per week (getting adequate exercise,) I did not consider myself to be at risk for COPD. I thought that the likes of emphysema and chronic bronchitis were ailments prevented by abstinence: “how can this be?”

While the scale might tip back and forth as to whether it is more appropriate to refer to asthma as a syndrome or a disease, what seems to characterize asthma as COPD is the accompanying bronchoconstriction (airway narrowing), airway wall thickening, and increased mucus, all of which obstruct the airways and compromise breathing efficacy.

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[OPINION] Doctor’s Orders: Wood Burning is Hazardous to Your Health

– by Dr. Brian Moench, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

Civilization orchestrates the curbing of one person’s freedoms for the protection of others and the greater good. When two people’s freedoms are mutually exclusive, civilization embraces the concept that the freedom to not be harmed by others takes precedence. Traffic laws, zoning ordinances, and regulations governing air travel are all examples of that priority. In fact, virtually all laws that allow a free society to rise above chaos, anarchy and barbarism are the result of a similar calculation.

We all accept that freedom for one person to smoke on an airplane has been subjugated to freedom for all the other passengers to breathe clean air. In cities throughout North America there is a growing recognition that wood burning in an urban setting should be considered as much of an anachronism as smoking on an airplane.

Two years ago in my home state of Utah, the most conservative state in the nation, our equally conservative governor, Gary Herbert, declared in his opening speech to our legislature that he would pursue a ban on wood burning throughout the winter season in our largest cities–a truly remarkable development. Here’s what led to that proposal.

In most major, northern cities, wood burning can be as much of a source of the worst kind of community air pollution as all vehicle exhaust. Such is the case where I live in Salt Lake City, Utah. Even in Los Angeles, a study showed that in the winter, residential wood combustion there contributed 30 percent of primary organic aerosols (probably the most important mass component of particulate pollution), more than motor vehicle exhaust, which contributed 21 percent. But that is only the beginning of the story.

Wood smoke is uniquely toxic among all contributors to urban air pollution. The free radical chemicals in wood smoke are active forty times as long as those from cigarette smoke, resulting in a greatly prolonged opportunity to damage individual cells. Other studies suggest that the lifetime cancer risk from wood smoke is twelve times greater than that from an equal volume of second hand tobacco smoke.

Particles in wood smoke are extraordinarily small, behaving essentially like gases, which amplifies their human health impact in multiple ways. The small size makes them easy to inhale into the smallest recesses of the lungs and less likely to be exhaled. They are then picked up by the blood and distributed throughout the body, causing inflammation and biologic disruption wherever they go.

The small size even allows these particles to enter individual cells and critical sub cellular structures like the mitochondria and nucleus, where the all important chromosomes lie. These particles can directly interact with and change the functioning of chromosomes, literally within minutes after exposure, which plays a prominent role in many serious diseases.

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Ten Things You Need to Know if You Burn Wood

– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor

Wood heating is on the rise. 2.7 million U.S. households, making up roughly 2% of the population, are projected to burn wood as a primary heating source over the winter of 2014-2015, a 3.9% increase from the previous year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Approximately 7.7% of households use a wood or pellet stove as a secondary heating source, based on 2012 census data.

In every state except for the balmy locales of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Hawaii, wood heating has increased over the last decade, largely due to lower costs in comparison to oil and local sourcing opportunities.

Despite some recent advances in stove technology, wood heating still involves combustion, a process that emits air pollutants that have been linked to various health concerns. With the recent uptick in residential and industrial wood burning, it’s in the public’s best interest to be mindful of the risks that come from stoking up the stove.

1) Respiratory Problems

Residential wood burning “greatly increases” the amount of particulate matter (PM) in the air, pollutants smaller in diameter than a human hair, that can lodge deep inside the lungs, as well as enter the bloodstream and organs. Exposure to particulate matter can result in “aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, non-fatal heart attacks, and premature death,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). PM can also trigger emphysema and strokes, with children, the elderly, sufferers of lung and heart disease, and those of lower income at highest risk.

A 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.” Particulate matter can harm lungs during only a four hour exposure and cause even greater damage over the long-term.

The chance of premature death is 17% more likely in cities with high particulates compared to those with cleaner air, with every increase of 50 µg/m3 (microgram per square meter) of PM into the air resulting in a 6% spike in deaths and 18.5% increase in hospital admissions results, according to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health. In some cases, up to 90% of PM pollution can come from residential burning, with wood smoke regularly responsible for half of the California Bay area’s winter PM pollution.

Other health concerns related to wood smoke include “irritated eyes, throat, sinuses, and lungs; headaches; reduced lung function, especially in children; lung inflammation or swelling; increased risk of lower respiratory diseases; more severe or frequent symptoms from existing lung diseases.”

Health costs related to wood smoke particulate matter in the U.S. have been estimated at up to $150 billion a year.

2) Carcinogenic 

Despite wood’s natural origin, wood smoke includes known carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acrolein, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), with studies demonstrating that wood smoke can cause lung cancer.

Wood burning is the largest source of PAHs in the US, with studies showing it to be the “worst contribution” to the air’s mutagenicity (likely to cause mutations in DNA, including cancer). One study concluded that burning two cords of wood can emit the same amount of PAHs as driving 13 gasoline powered cars 10,000 miles each at 20 miles/gallon.

Other studies have shown that wood smoke causes mouth, throat, lung, breast, and cervical cancer, in scientific literature compiled by Dr. Dorothy L. Robinson. Even more studies linking wood smoke and cancer can be found at the Australian Air Quality Group’s website.

3) Toxic Chemicals

Wood burning emits dioxin, one of the most toxic and persistent substances on the planet as well as isocyanic acid, which can cause atherosclerosis, cataracts, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Combustion of wood also re-releases heavy metals and radioactive pollution that have been absorbed by trees, in amounts significant enough that wood ash can qualify as hazardous waste under Europe’s definitions, if the standards for coal ash were applied to wood ash.

4) Worse Than Cigarettes

The health impacts of cigarettes was one of the biggest public health scandals of the 1980’s, resulting in smoking being banned in restaurants, bars, and other businesses and public places around the world. Despite the risks of cigarettes, you’re twelve times more likely to get cancer from wood smoke in comparison to an equal volume of second hand cigarette smoke, according to the EPA, cited in the Washington State Department of Ecology’s The Health Effects of Wood Smoke.

Wood smoke is thirty times more potent than cigarette smoke, according to “tumor initiation” tests done on laboratory mice, with another study showing that burning hardwood created three times the likelihood of tumors in mice than cigarette smoke, and more than fifteen times when burning softwood.

A fireplace burning for an hour puts out 4,300 times more PAHs than a pack and a half of cigarettes. Additionally, wood smoke “attacks” the cells of the body forty times longer than tobacco, with free radicals from wood smoke chemically active for twenty minutes, with those of tobacco lasting only thirty seconds.

Burning 1 kg of wood can emit more carcinogenic benzo[a]pyrene than 27,000 cigarettes and more formaldehyde than 6,000 cigarettes, according to Comparison of Toxic Chemicals in Wood and Cigarette Smoke, while another study calculated ambient air levels of benzo[a]pyrene from wood smoke the same as smoking two to sixteen cigarettes/day.

More comparisons of wood smoke to cigarette smoke are studied in Impact of Fuel Choice on Comparative Cancer Risk of Emissions,by Joellen Lewtas, Health Effects Research Laboratory, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

5) Exceeds Federal Standards

The World Health Organization maintains that exposure to fine particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) shouldn’t exceed 25 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) over a 24 hour average, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established a much laxer 35 μg/m3 under its National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

Yet even with the EPA’s leniency, a single wood stove can be responsible for a neighborhood exceeding even those levels, according to the American Lung Association. Since the beginning of the 2012-2013 winter stove season, the greater Fairbanks, Alaska area has logged 48 days that exceeded EPA standards. In November 2012, the air quality in the town of North Pole, Alaska, was measured as being twice as bad as Beijing’s, primarily due to wood smoke.

New Hampshire monitoring showed wood smoke violating PM standards by almost double the allowed levels in January 2009, with many communities in southwestern New Hampshire recording 35 μg/m3 and higher.

study in New York — where up to 90% of the Particulate Matter measured came from wood combustion — found 26% of the population was exposed to wood smoke, with the poorer, more crowded and less-white populations receiving the highest levels of PM. Spikes of over 100 μg/m3 per cubic meter occurred during nighttime mobile monitoring, with the report linking such peaks to heart and lung problems, including heart attacks and asthma.

6) Smoke Enters Homes

It’s a common misconception that the only exposure to wood smoke occurs outdoors. However, a substantial amount of smoke actually enters the homes of wood burners, with particulate matter levels found to be 26% higher, benzene levels 29% higher, and PAHs 300% to 500% higher in the homes of wood burners, compared to those who use other heating sources. Another study estimated 70% of outdoor smoke can re-enter a home.

Those who don’t burn wood themselves, yet live in a neighborhood of wood burners, experience indoor particulate levels 50-70% of outdoor levels, according to a Seattle study, as wood smoke has the tendency to hang close to the ground and infiltrate homes, schools, and hospitals.

7) EPA Stoves Not Much Better

EPA stoves have improved somewhat upon conventional woodstoves. Instead of emitting 250 times more particulate matter than an oil or gas furnace, EPA stoves now emit eighty-five times more.

In Libby, Montana over $2.5 million financed the replacement of old wood stoves with EPA certified stoves, resulting in only a 28% reduction in emissions. Measures to further improve wood stove emissions are getting major pushback from the wood heating industry and some politicians.

8) Doctors Want Ban

Some medical professionals who have been studying the health impacts of wood smoke are concerned about the health ramifications, while others are calling for a phasing out of wood stoves. Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, wants to see an end to residential wood burning. “We don’t have a lot of options,” he said. “We can accept our air pollution is not solvable, we can stop driving all our cars, we can tell industry to shut down, or we can stop burning wood.”

American Lung Association urges that the public “should avoid burning wood in houses where less polluting heating alternatives are available.”

9) Taxpayer Subsidized

Trends show more and more Americans burning wood to heat their homes, causing shortages of cordwood and pellets in some regions and the resulting price spikes. While an individual may choose not to operate a wood stove, a portion of his or her tax dollars may still subsidize those who do.

A $300 federal tax credit has been available to those purchasing new wood stoves or pellet stoves, with the policy set to expire in January 1, 2014, though industry groups claim an extension is possible. Eight states provide tax credits, rebates or deductions for wood heating, including Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Montana, and Oregon, with New York State offering a $1,000 tax credit for the purchase of a new pellet stove.

10) Alternatives to Burning

There are options for those seeking non-combustion technologies to heat their homes. Alternatives include ground source heat pumpsair source heat pumpssolar thermalpassive solar, and even experimental technologies, such as compost heating. No matter the heating source, the most basic and important step any homeowner can take to reduce energy demands is through insulation and other conservation and efficiency measures.

In some areas, you might not have a choice about whether you burn wood or not. Many states, such as ArizonaCalifornia, and Washington, enforce burn bans and restrictions, based on changes in air quality.

Several court cases, including one in Nebraska, have determined that a neighbor’s wood stove is a nuisance. A recently adopted bylaw in the County of Essex, Ontario, Canada states that one or more complaints in regards to smoke that has a “detrimental impact on the use and enjoyment” of property, will result in a cease and desist order barring future burning.

Montreal has taken things a step further, with plans to phase out wood stoves altogether by 2020.

[OPINION] Biomass Combustion: Harmful on any Scale

– by Cathy Baiton, Only Clean Air

In the same way that industrial biomass combustion can seriously jeopardize public health and the environment in communities, residential and smaller-scale commercial biomass burning also have adverse impacts on health and air quality in neighborhoods.

In many cities and towns, increased wood burning, both indoor and outdoor, has become a potentially year-round source of urban and semi-rural air pollution, whether from highly polluting outdoor wood boilers, needless “recreational” outdoor burning in warmer seasons, or avoidable fireplace or wood stove smoke in cooler months.

Residential smokestacks have even fewer pollution controls than industrial technologies, and people are exposed so directly in the confines of an urban neighborhood, where smoke particles can be trapped between trees, buildings, and other structures and can seep easily into nearby houses, even through closed windows and doors. Studies have found that as much as 70 percent of outdoor smoke pollution can enter surrounding homes, posing health risks to neighbors. Indoors, particle concentrations can build to levels that are dangerously high.

Julie Bamonte Burgo, a clean air activist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, notes that, “In Allegheny County, wood burning smoke accounts for one third of our citizens’ pollution complaints,” and points to the great need in her own and other areas for an ongoing campaign aimed at increased public awareness of the health effects of wood smoke, and of its link to higher rates of heart attacks, strokes, asthma and other lung diseases, hospital admissions, and even early deaths. Julie recalls how at one time her family’s home, due to neighborhood smoke pollution, “was like a gas chamber, it was so bad; even with all the plastic on the doors and purifiers running . . . the smoke would just build up in our house.”

While infants, children, expectant mothers, the elderly, or people with allergies, asthma, or other health concerns are at a special risk to even low levels of neighborhood wood smoke, no amount of smoke exposure can be considered safe for anyone. The ability of even healthy people to safely enjoy outdoor activity is also limited by the presence of any smoke pollution. In fact, the World Health Organization’s International Agency forResearch on Cancer (IARC) now classifies particulate matter in outdoor air pollution as a Group 1 human carcinogen – placing PM in the same category as other cancer-causing agents like asbestos and tobacco smoke.

According to the American Lung Association, wood heating is the greatest residential source of particulate matter in the United States – and it is Canada’s largest single source of particle pollution, according to Environment Canada. That the minority of homes heated with wood contributes such a large portion of PM in both countries helps to indicate wood burning’s potentially negative impacts in residential areas, and gives a sense of why even one wood burning appliance can degrade the air quality of an entire neighborhood, as the California Air Resources Board has found. When even two or more new wood stoves are used in a residential area, the harmful pollution is multiplied. Even in areas that have good overall air quality monitor readings, some people can still experience very unhealthy air if they live or work near localized sources of commercial or residential wood burning emissions.

A 1999-2002 Environment Canada study found that, especially during the winter wood-heating season, concentrations of PM 2.5 and pollutants like dioxins and furans and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were much higher in a residential area impacted by wood burning than in downtown Montreal – even with all of the heavy traffic there – with concentrations being highest during winter nights and on weekends. The PAH pollution levels in the smoke-impacted suburban neighborhoods measured twice as high as those downtown; the PM 2.5 pollution was ten percent higher and more; and in the wood-burning suburban neighborhood, there were 1.7 times as many dioxins and furans than in downtown Montreal. Another 2007 study found that in a wood-burning neighborhood east of the city, there were up to five times as many days of poor air quality than were measured downtown.

In the years since the earlier study, numerous wood stove exchanges in Canada, the US, and beyond, have replaced older wood stoves with newer ones – with little or no real improvement in air quality. Many of these stove exchanges have been endorsed by health and clean air organizations that could – and really should – instead be leading the way in efforts to transition away from dirty energy sources including wood combustion. In British Columbia, where many such exchanges have taken place, thetotal provincial emissions of PM 2.5 from wood heating has not decreased. Rather, the fractional contribution was larger in 2012 than it was in 2003.

New wood stoves, as the Quebec Lung Association has argued vigorously, are no answer to the problem of residential smoke pollution. Last year the City of Montreal, which in 2009 banned new installations of wood stoves, announced plans to prohibit the use of existing wood burning stoves and fireplaces by the end of 2020. This plan sets a high standard that would benefit air quality and public health in any community. It also reflects the need for government leaders to consider a key recommendation of a 2011 UN report which recommended phasing out traditional wood burning stoves in wealthy nations to help reduce global emissions of climate-forcing pollutants including black carbon; that report demonstrated that wood burning, along with diesel vehicles, is a major source of black carbon in industrialized countries.

Bill Lewin, a British Columbia resident whose family has suffered due toongoing smoke from an “EPA certified” stove, wrote previously to his province’s Environment Minister about the pollution that resulted in his community after some residents had chosen to heat with wood “because of the false claims of health departments, government agencies, and the wood burning industry, which claim that the new stoves burn cleanly. Unfortunately for us,” Bill explains in the letter he has shared for the purpose of this article, “this has not proved to be the case.” Bill’s letter continues: “I have contacted many authorities to help us – but to no avail. As a matter of fact, what happens is one agency or person says to contact another agency or person, and it just goes round and round in circles.”

Like many victims of residential biomass pollution, Bill and his family have found that a lack of awareness among public officials is a frustrating stumbling block to progress and to urgently-needed relief from toxic smoke. For the past several years, the health of his family and his neighborhood has been placed at risk, and yet, as Bill’s letter states, the problem has been treated as “a non-issue” by authorities. After contacting four law firms, Bill was informed by one of them that “if they were to take on our case it would cost $25,000 just to get it off the ground – with no guarantee that the judge was not a wood burner himself. Where,” Bill’s letter asks, “is our right to breathe?”

Why should any sector of the biomass energy industry be permitted to place business interests above the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities – often while being given government incentives and funding? Increased pollution problems following the rise in wood heating that began about two decades ago, seem to have demonstrated that burning wood for energy within the confines of closely-packed, urban neighborhoods has been an experiment that has failed miserably.

Yet government-supported, so-called “Burn Wise” (EPA) or “Burn ItSmart” (Environment Canada) programs enable the residential biomass industry to persist in its promotion of the ultimately unattainable goal of “efficient, clean wood burning,” in a way that seems to parallel the industrial biomass industry’s continued promotion of the idea of “biomass done right” in “smaller and more energy-efficient” facilities. It is simply not possible to burn wood cleanly, and yet biomass plants keep being built, threatening the health of communities and forests, while in neighborhoods, the continued sale and installation of wood burning appliances keeps putting the health of people at risk.

Rather than challenge this problematic pattern, mainstream media sources appear to generally accept the notion of biomass burning as “green energy,” and often erroneously describe various forms of biomass burning in the same positive light as clean, renewable energy sources – even though these differ entirely from biomass by being emissions-free. Much of the general public and, all too often, public officials and decision makers, are not fully informed about the health impacts of biomass burning and the reasons why it is not the “clean, green, carbon-neutral” solution that both the residential and industrial biomass industries have claimed.

In its Public Policy Statement on Energy, the American Lung Association recommends that wherever possible, “Individuals should avoid burning wood” due to the health hazards of smoke pollution. In its policy statement on biomass, the American Lung Association of New England affirms that the issue of people being impacted by trespassing biomasssmoke must be taken more seriously by authorities, and asserts in its Biomass Position Statement (2009) that, “as in the area of secondhand tobacco smoke, the right to breathe healthy air is primary. It supersedes any alleged ‘right’ to burn wood.”

From this perspective, both small-scale residential and commercial biomass pollution and industrial biomass pollution are issues of environmental justice. For the same essential reasons that waste incinerators and wood-burning power plants should not be allowed to compromise public wellness and the health of ecosystems, it is equally necessary for residents of all communities to have full legal protection from the harmful impacts of wood burning pollution in residential environments.

Biomass burning is harmful on any scale – and what is urgently needed is a strong commitment by all levels of government to support and invest in renewable, non-combustible energy sources that are truly clean, along with improved public policies that will provide people with full protection from all forms of biomass pollution and will help to ensure everyone’s right to breathe clean air.

People everywhere deserve the right to live in communities that are biomass smoke-free, where all have equal access to clean air for better health, now and into a more sustainable future.