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Wood Stove Smoke Is Killing Us

While our developed nation continues to tolerate wood-burning, smoke pollution gets attention in poor countries.
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Winter cold has set in, and smoke curls skyward from my neighbor's chimney. Once, I would have found that charming. No longer.

Now I know that his smoke is making me sick. For starters, wood smoke causes heart disease, irregular heartbeat, lung cancer, and emphysema. I'm not alone in waking up to these hazards: Cities from Paris to Montreal to Tacoma are responding with restrictions aimed at wood-burning.

And on Tuesday (February 3), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will issue new rules requiring manufacturers to redesign wood stoves and other wood-fired heaters to burn cleaner and more efficiently, with standards phased in over five years. But these improvements will do little to clean the air, because the rules won't require people to get rid of their old stoves. The 11 million American households that heat with wood will be allowed to keep on stoking their polluting stoves. The EPA's approach resembles waving a potholder to clear smoke from a raging kitchen fire.

Non-smokers are no longer forced to breathe cigarette smoke in restaurants and offices, but wood smoke can have the same effects: many toxins in cigarette smoke and wood smoke overlap. These include formaldehyde, heavy metals and cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In a single hour, a fire in a hearth generates quantities of these hydrocarbons at levels produced by burning 6,000 packs of cigarettes.

Each fall, the return of my childhood asthma coincides with the first smoke from my neighbor's chimney. I thought that shutting my windows might shield me. But studies show that more than half of the smallest particles in smoke find their way inside, despite sealed windows. Those tiny, lightweight particles and droplets are wood smoke's most vicious components. They dive deep within the lungs, scarring lung tissue and streaming into the blood. The smallest particles are so light that they travel for miles. My neighbor's wood-burning may be eroding the health of families who live far from his smoking chimney.

Is this legal? I called my health department here in Connecticut. They told me that the only law that might apply is the nuisance statute in the state's public health code. It addresses perils including flies swarming around outhouses--but it doesn't even mention smoke.

That's in a state in which the number of households heating primarily with wood more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. The number of Americans who burn wood for heat grew by a third from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. census.The EPA estimates that, based on 2005 air quality, small particles cause 130,000 Americans to die prematurely each year--including 1,800 babies.

I once relished cozy evenings beside friends' wood stoves. But the romance is gone: I've learned that just a few hours of inhaling wood smoke can trigger a stroke or heart attack in someone with underlying disease. I sympathize with my well-meaning neighbor. He views his woodpile as a symbol of self-reliance. But when I see people with lung disease tethered to oxygen tanks, I know that wood smoke may have made them sick, or sicker. They don't get to be self-sufficient.

Increasingly, local and regional governments are stepping in where the EPA dreads to tread. Around Washington State's Puget Sound, a regional air quality agency enforces no-burn days when pollution spikes. Furthermore, 3.8 million residents there have until September to rid themselves of wood stoves built before 1995. Montreal has gone farther. In Canada's second-largest city, where an estimated 900 residents die early each year because of wood smoke, the city has banned installation of any new wood-fired appliances except those burning pellets. Paris recently declared and then rescinded a prohibition on burning wood in fireplaces.

Health districts nationwide should shut down wood stoves and furnaces if their smoke enters neighbors' houses. Every town and city should monitor air quality and ban burning when particulate pollution runs high.

Ironically, while our developed nation continues to tolerate wood-burning, smoke pollution gets attention in poor countries. More than 1,000 governments and NGOs have joined the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to reduce indoor air pollution in developing countries. They are acting because the WHO has reported that indoor smoke causes nearly 4 million people to die prematurely each year from heart disease, strokes and chronic lung problems. Soot leads to half the lung infections that kill children under 5.

Autopsies of ancient Egyptians have found that mummies' lungs are laden with carbon deposits from wood smoke. Three thousand years later, it's appalling to recognize that our own autopsies will look the same. It's time we protect ourselves.

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