Protect your lungs; treat wood smoke like cigarette smoke

Civilization requires balancing the curtailment of one person's freedoms with the protection of others and the greater good. When two people's freedoms are mutually exclusive, civilization usually embraces the concept that the freedom to not be harmed by others takes precedence. Traffic laws, zoning ordinances and FAA 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 brutishness are the results 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 Fairbanks and many other cities throughout North America, there is a growing recognition that wood burning in an urban setting should be considered as unacceptable and inappropriate as smoking on an airplane. In my home state of Utah, one of the most conservative states in the nation, our equally conservative governor, Gary Herbert, declared in his opening speech to our legislature that he would pursue a rule that prohibited wood burning throughout the winter season in our largest cities -- a truly remarkable development. Here's what led to that policy.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment have spent the last seven years bringing public attention to the enormous body of medical research revealing how damaging air pollution is to public health. In Utah there is now widespread recognition that our sometimes "worst air pollution in the country" can no longer be tolerated. In fact, recent polls show air pollution is the issue of greatest concern to Utah adults. Air pollution in Fairbanks is even worse than in Salt Lake City. In fact, the pollution monitor at North Pole Fire shows that area to have three times the annual average pollution that Salt Lake City has. The primary reason is all the wood and coal burning in stoves, fireplaces and outdoor boilers.

Wood smoke is uniquely toxic among all sources of urban air pollution. For example, the EPA estimates that the lifetime cancer risk from wood stove smoke is 12 times greater than that from an equal volume of secondhand tobacco smoke. Particles in wood smoke are extraordinarily small, behaving essentially like gases, making them easy to inhale but less likely to be exhaled. They are then distributed by the blood throughout the body, causing inflammation and biologic disruption wherever they go. Attached to these tiny particles are at least 200 of the most toxic compounds known -- dioxins, furans, formaldehyde, heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. One fireplace burning 10 pounds of wood in an hour will generate nearly as many polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as 3,000 packs of cigarettes. No one in their right mind, even a smoker, would think lighting up 3,000 packs of cigarettes every hour during a cozy winter evening would be a good idea.

The free-radical chemicals in wood smoke are active 40 times as long as those from cigarette smoke, resulting in a greatly prolonged opportunity to seriously damage cells. Studies show that even the chromosomes in those cells can be impaired literally within minutes of exposure.

Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in your chimney doesn't stay in your chimney. The tiny size of wood smoke particles means they also easily penetrate your neighbors' homes as well, causing them to breathe dramatically higher pollution levels than are reflected at the local monitoring station.

Once the health hazards of secondhand cigarette smoke were firmly established, sweeping ordinances throughout the country were passed to protect people from it. Scientifically, we are at that stage now with wood burning. Protection from wood smoke is even more medically justified. We should not allow a few wood burners to so profoundly affect the air quality in the crowded "airplane" that is Fairbanks. Moreover, replacing old stoves with new "certified" stoves is no more a solution than putting filters on cigarettes was a solution to the health plague of smoking.

Citizens for Clean Air asked me to come to Fairbanks on Saturday, Sept. 13, to give several presentations on the health consequences of air pollution and wood burning in particular. If you are not a smoker, burning wood is probably the greatest threat to your own health of anything that you could do. But it is also a threat to your children and your neighbors, as inappropriate as blowing cigarette smoke in their faces all winter long. More than likely your neighbors are less than enthusiastic about sacrificing their health for your freedom to burn wood. A civilized society would suggest they shouldn't have to.

Dr. Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Physicians for Social Responsibility. He is a former instructor at Harvard Medical School and former adjunct professor of public health and environment at the University of Utah's Honors College.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.