With Thanksgiving and the holiday season fast approaching, perhaps your thoughts are turning to time spent relaxing in front of the fireplace. While this family pastime might seem cozy and nostalgic, you should think twice before tossing a log on the fire as the temperature drops this winter.
A group of doctors, public health researchers and environmental advocates at Allegheny General Hospital learned yesterday about the serious health effects of wood smoke and what clinicians can do to help mitigate these risks for their patients. Speaker Michael Brauer, a professor at the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, addressed these medical professionals at the hospital’s Grand Rounds–regular presentations held for physicians on advances and innovations in healthcare and research.
As Brauer told the audience, wood smoke contains a number of dangerous components that can find their way deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, wreaking havoc throughout the body through our inflammatory pathways. These include fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and known carcinogens such as formaldehyde and benzene–not surprisingly, many of these same chemicals are also found in cigarette smoke.
More people in Pennsylvania and nationwide are turning to wood to generate heat and power as fossil fuels become more costly, making it one of the few increasing sources of air pollution in the United States, Brauer noted. Some public policy even promotes residential wood burning, touting it as a “renewable,” nearly carbon-neutral fuel that could help the country to achieve energy independence. But most of the discussions about the potential benefits of wood burning happen on economic terms and ignore the health and environmental impacts of this practice, according to Brauer.
Wood burning isn’t regulated well–if at all–by many local and state governments. And increases in wood smoke pollution naturally correspond to the winter heating season, when cold, stagnant air conditions keep the wood smoke close to the ground where it can readily contaminate homes, schools, hospitals and other buildings. Downwind areas and river valleys with poor air circulation–like in Pittsburgh–can be particularly impacted by high levels of wood smoke.
In Allegheny County, residential fuel combustion–which is 99 percent wood smoke– accounts for 20 percent of our fine particle pollution load, according to the 2012 Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis (PRETA): Particulate Matter report from the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities. There’s also concern about the growing use of larger-scale wood-burning units–called industrial, commercial, and institutional boilers (ICIs)–which are used to heat everything from sawmills to schools.
A single source of burning wood can have an impact on at least a three-kilometer region, according to Brauer, and the potential health impacts are wide-ranging and significant. A quarter century of research has found conclusive evidence that residential wood smoke is hazardous to human heath, with effects ranging from acute respiratory distress in children to cancer in adults.
“There’s a generally consistent relationship between exposure to wood smoke and increased respiratory symptoms, increased risk of respiratory illness, including hospital admissions and ER visits, and decreased lung function,” Brauer said. “Several studies suggest that asthmatics are particularly vulnerable.”
A growing body of research also draws a link between wood smoke and cardiovascular disease, adverse birth outcomes and otitis media–a middle ear infection that represents a tremendous health and financial burden, as it is a primary reason that children visit their doctors in the first years of life.
The good news is that “we have interventions and when we implement them they are effective,” Brauer told the physicians.
Doctors should ask patients about their exposure to wood smoke and consider it a risk factor, especially for children, the elderly, pregnant women, people with preexisting illness and those with recurring respiratory infections, according to Brauer. Physicians and other medical professionals can also recommend the use of HEPA air filters in the home to patients who are exposed to wood smoke, as well as advocate for population-level solutions like exchange programs for more efficient wood-burning technologies, replacement with other fuel sources and stricter emissions controls for wood smoke.
“I like the aesthetics of a fireplace as much as the next person,” Brauer said. “But in urban areas, especially, it’s really hard to argue that it is worth it–that I should get the aesthetic benefit of my fire and the person with COPD or asthma next door should have to suffer.”
For more information on the health and environmental impacts of wood smoke in Pennsylvania, visit http://cleanair.org/program/outdoor_air_pollution/biomass.