Tag Archives: lung disease

[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.

Medical Doctors Brief Congress on Biomass Energy Health Hazards

– by Josh Schlossberg, October 2, 2012, The Biomass Monitor

Three medical doctors and a scientist presented the first-ever Congressional briefing on the health hazards of biomass incineration in the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. on September 25, 2012. The briefing was arranged and sponsored by Save America’s Forests and the presentations can be viewed online here.

Pediatricians William Sammons, M.D., of Massachusetts and Norma Kreilein, M.D., of Indiana, William Blackley, M.D. of North Carolina, and Rachel Smolker, Ph.D., co-director of Biofuelwatch, educated the attending staff of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on the toxic air pollutants emitted from biomass incinerator smokestacks and their impacts on human health.

A flag has been planted,” said Carl Ross, who moderated the briefing and is executive director of Save America’s Forests, based in Washington, D.C. Until now, Ross explained, the only Congressional briefings on biomass incinerator energy had been given by members of the biomass industry itself. The briefing had a powerful impact on those present, according to Ross, some “gasping” at slides demonstrating that biomass incinerators emit air pollution similar to—and in many ways worse than—coal facilities, and can cause health problems that would increase with a national expansion of biomass energy.

The four presenters used the most recent science to demonstrate that biomass incinerators cannot produce “clean” energy, and their main recommendation to Congress was that the federal government stop subsidizing biomass incinerators.

Health Impacts of Pollution from Biomass Incinerators

In her presentation, Health Impacts of Pollution From Biomass Incinerators: Dirty Energy Comes From Smoke Stacks, Dr. Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch, an international organization based in the U.S. and U.K., gave an overview of the problems with biomass energy, explaining how dirty incineration competes with genuinely clean energy sources, such as solar power, under the guise of “green” energy. Unlike solar panels, Smolker explained, biomass incinerators “require ongoing fuel inputs and result in ongoing pollution outputs, that causes diseases, pain and suffering and raises health care costs.”

Smolker listed the air pollutants emitted from biomass incinerators, including particulate matter (PM), Nitrogen oxides (Nox), Sulfur dioxide (SO2), heavy metals (i.e. mercury and lead), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Carbon monoxide (CO), Hazardous Air Pollutants, and dioxins. Smolker provided data showing how biomass is not only the dirtiest form of so-called “renewable” energy, but can actually emit higher levels of particulate matter, Volatile Organic Compounds, and ammonia than a coal-fired plant, the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

Smolker informed the group that 80% of biomass incinerators in the U.S. have been cited for violations of air pollution laws. She also discussed how facilities produce wood ash at varying levels of toxicity, harboring such contaminants as dioxins, lead, zinc, cadmium and radioactive Cesium-137, with this ash often sold to farmers as a soil amendment.

Human Health Effects of Biomass Incinerators: Ultrafine Particles

Bill Sammons, MD, a pediatrician based in Williamstown, Massachusetts, presented Human Health Effects of Biomass Incinerators: Ultrafine Particles. Dr. Sammons has been traveling the country talking to communities, elected officials, and the media about the health hazards from burning biomass, while encouraging other health care professionals to join him in publicly voicing their concerns.

Dr. Sammons discussed the size differences of particulate matter (PM), including ultrafine PM 10— which are 10,000 times smaller than a millimeter—and PM 2.5 nanoparticles, which are 100,000 times smaller than a millimeter—and their formation. Sammons determined that existing PM regulations are “ineffective” and that biomass incineration “produces a higher number of particles emitted than any other fuel, including coal.”

Sammons insisted that “until the permitting process sets limits based on number of particles emitted, the population will continue to be at increased risk,” citing a 2010 study finding PM to be responsible for up to 17% of the decrease in U.S. life expectancy over the past twenty years.

The pediatrician revealed the limited effectiveness of incinerator pollution controls, such as electrostatic precipitators (ESPs), referring to studies demonstrating a “penetration window” for very small particles “where the collection efficiency can be as low as 70-80%.” Sammons referred to a compilation of North American data which showed a lack of a “discernible threshold below which PM post no health risk to the general population,” meaning any exposure to PM can be harmful.

Sammons referenced a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report stating that “the overall evidence is consistent with a causal relationship between PM 2.5 exposure and cardiovascular morbidity and mortality,” or heart attacks. Dr. Sammons warned that PM 2.5 and smaller are “not specifically regulated or accounted for in the permitting process,” citing a study demonstrating that short term increases in PM 2.5 levels kill tens of thousands of people in the U.S. every year.

Sammons concluded his presentation by listing the human health impacts of particulate exposure, including “lower birth weight and increased incidence of premature delivery,” a 300% increase in asthma, and a 20% decrease in lung function, similar to the effects of smoking.

A Pediatrician’s Perspective on Air Pollution and Children

Norma Kreilein, MD, Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, from Jasper, Indiana, presented A Pediatrician’s Perspective on Air Pollution and Children, with a Focus on Inflammation.

Dr. Kreilein related her experience working with children and infants suffering from lung disease, reminding those present that “each patient is a real person in a real family, not just a diagnosis, statistic, or cost liability.” Biomass incineration produces air pollution that “triggers inflammation,” explained Kreilein, and it this inflammation that is “responsible for disease.”

In the case of asthma, inflammation causes “airway swelling and more mucus, limiting air flow and clearance.” Kreilein identified particulate matter as a “potent inflammatory trigger,” posing a greater risk to children who spend more time outside than adults and who “breathe in more air pollutants per pound of body weight.”

Exposure to pollution over the long term can harm a “child’s developing body, especially lungs, brain, and immune system,” warned the pediatrician. Further, a child’s smaller size means inflammation of the lungs is “more significant to airflow and clearance.”

Dr. Kreilein discussed other conditions that could result from the inhalation of biomass incineration byproducts, including Squamous Metaplasia, which can be cured “only if trigger (pollution) is removed.” If not, she cautioned, the “next step is cancer.”

Dioxins Damage Children and Adults

William Blackley, MD, Fellow in the American Academy of Family Practice out of Piedmont, North Carolina concluded the briefing with his presentation, Dioxins Damage Children and Adults.

Dr. Blackley recounted how when a biomass incinerator was proposed for his town in 2008, developers promised “clean energy,” but a closer investigation revealed significant air pollution concerns. As soon as “physicians, citizens and leaders confronted this company about their toxic emissions and health risks,” said Blackley, “the company quietly slipped out of town.”

Dioxins, a byproduct of biomass incineration and other forms of combustion, are classified as Persistent Organic Pollutants and are one of the “most toxic chemicals known to man.” Dr. Blackley noted “international concern” with dioxin and cited a 2012 EPA report showing a “56% increase in dioxins from wood burning from 1987 to 2010.” Dioxins are problematic because they are “invisible and odorless,” they trigger “no warning signs of exposure or damage” to the human body, and “there’s no medical treatment to remove dioxins.” “

Almost all biomass contains chlorine,” explained Blackley, so when “hydrocarbons like trees, railroad ties, tires, poultry litter, grass, trash, garbage, etc. are burned in the presence of chlorine, dioxins are created.” Dioxins “exit the smokestack and settle on soil, in water and on leaves” and collect in biomass ash, which is often spread on agricultural fields as a soil amendment. Dioxins bio-accumulate, or increase in potency, in humans after consuming animal products laced with the toxic substance, such as beef, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products.

“Biomass electricity is expensive, especially when health care costs from resulting diseases are taken into consideration,” said Blackley, warning that “any level of dioxins increases the risk of cancer.” “The most toxic effect of dioxins is on the developing fetus, newborn and child,” according to Dr. Blackley, and that “a few parts per trillion of dioxin exposure can be enough to cause abnormal development.”

Health effects of dioxin exposure include, but are not limited to “premature delivery, reduced response to vaccinations, immune system suppression, reduced IQ, decrease[d] sperm quality and quantity, type II Diabetes,” hypertension, heart disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and cancer. Blackley was skeptical about the effectiveness of smokestack pollution control devices, explaining that “the primary way to reduce dioxins is to not create any more of them.”

“Incentivizing biomass burning,” concluded the North Carolina physician, “is like paying businesses to build and light 300 foot cigarettes in American communities and to force everyone, including children, to breathe the secondhand smoke. “

Carl Ross said Save America’s Forests is planning to arrange future Congressional briefings on other harmful impacts of biomass incineration, in conjunction with grassroots allies around the country, including the Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign. Topics may include exacerbation of climate change, cost of subsidies to the U.S. taxpayers, intensive use of limited freshwater reserves, U.S. and global deforestation and forest degradation, and environmental justice issues.