By Tom Osborne
I’ve thought about and been dreading writing this particular column for years. At the risk of looking like a cantankerous killjoy, I finally decided I could not consider myself an environmental columnist without unmasking the ugly truth behind the wood-burning fires that bring us such comfort, especially during the unseasonably cold (by Laguna standards, so laughable I know) and wet winter we’re now experiencing. With that confession, I will now take the plunge into the roiling waters of a topic practically guaranteed to antagonize some readers.
Nearly every night since November, when I’ve stepped outside for fresh air or to stargaze, I’ve had to step back inside and shut the door quickly. Why? The wood smoke in our south Laguna neighborhood was simply too acrid. Because this smoke pollution seems particularly bad at night, I suspect it has as much to do with atmospherics as with residents getting and staying warm. Even a cantankerous killjoy can get that. I, too, love a cozy wood fire.
On the other hand, I’m a bit haunted by my interaction with a neighbor (whose name I don’t recall) about ten years ago. She was a young mom then, married to a Hollywood screenwriter. Articulate, well-informed, and outspoken, she complained to City Hall, wrote emails and testified before our City Council, and urged me to write about the health risks of breathing the particulate matter emitted from wood-burning fireplaces in Laguna. She sent me links to numerous scientifically sourced websites to obtain additional information. Regretfully, fearing reader blowback, I dodged the issue and have since witnessed how the problem has seemingly worsened. Meanwhile, the woman’s family has moved away from Laguna, leaving me with the discomforting recollection of her plea to address this issue in my environmental column.
In my search for information, I came across a warning posted online by Marin County officials titled “What You Should Know about Residential Wood Smoke Pollution:”
“The components of wood smoke and cigarette smoke are quite similar, and many components of both are carcinogenic. EPA researchers estimate the lifetime cancer risk from wood smoke to be 12 times greater than from a similar amount of cigarette smoke.”
Next, I went to the American Lung Association website and found nothing good to say about wood-burning emissions. For example, those emissions contain lung-damaging particle pollution, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, carcinogens, carbon dioxide, and methane. So, to make matters worse, wood smoke contributes to global warming. A more lethal witch’s brew would be hard to imagine.
Yet, who among us doesn’t like to hear our favorite crooner (mine was Nat King Cole) singing “Chestnuts Roasting by an Open Fire” in mid-December? But that song was written in 1945, long before medical science alerted the public about the dangers of inhaling wood smoke. This is 2023, and we know far more about this matter today.
I know our City has an ordinance on fireplace wood smoke, and the County of Orange has established an air quality threshold for disallowing the burning of wood. I’ll need time to unpack the provisions of those local measures. Even with those measures in place, I feel unprotected and housebound to stay indoors when the wood smoke polluting our otherwise refreshing sea air is too noxious to breathe. Knowing this, why would we compromise our health? Unless or until stronger regulations are in force, we depend on our neighbors’ goodwill to consider the community-wide effects of using their wood-burning fireplaces. Whatever interior air filters may protect their families will do nothing to keep our neighborhoods from being exposed to smoke that is not only unwanted but, at times, deadly. Being considerate neighbors would take us a long way toward improving public health.
Tom Osborne is an environmental historian and journalist. He is writing a book on California’s history of environmental leadership. He and his wife, Ginger, co-lead the Laguna chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. To join, contact [email protected]
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Excellent letter Tom, and thank you for raising awareness of this critical-yet-often-overlooked issue. Wood burning is indeed an archaic health and climate disaster that must be relegated to the dust bin of history. We have other ways to heat and cook and we ought to be using them to protect our health and the climate and guarantee our children and every other living being on Earth a future.
Unfortunately Tom we can’t rely on considerate neighbours to address this problem. If people can use them they will. All wood heaters should come with a health warning label at minimum. Most harmful products have warnings – so why not wood heaters? Governments also need to support people to switch to healthier more environmentally friendly heating. Wood burning not only produces harmful pollution but it is a major contributor to deforestation and harming biodiversity. Thank you for speaking up – I hope your health and environmental colleagues will speak up too.