When thinking of air pollution, most people imagine smokestacks and tailpipes. But in many communities, fireplaces, fire pits, and wood-burning appliances are the major sources of air pollution.

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Many years ago our society adopted the norm that no one should be involuntarily subjected to secondhand cigarette smoke because of the inherent public health consequences and the infringement on the rights of nonsmokers to avoid exposure. Routine wood burning in an urban setting should not be allowed for exactly the same public health reasons as prohibition of cigarette smoking in public venues, backyard trash incineration, and excessive vehicle emissions.

Doctors and Scientists Against Wood Smoke Pollution (DSAWSP) is an international organization formed in response to the growing problem of individuals and families having their properties, homes, and lungs overwhelmed by smoke from wood-burning homes and restaurants. We were recently contacted by residents in Kennebunk whose health is being affected by smoke from their neighbors.

If your next door neighbor or business is a wood burner, the rest of the community can be enjoying clean air, while you can be plagued by literally Beijing, China, levels of pollution with all of the health consequences. One household burning wood for heat will create as much pollution as about 400 commuting cars.

Some people afford wood smoke a “pollution pass” because they think it’s natural, or that because humans evolved with fire it is somehow not harmful. But for most people wood smoke is the most toxic type of air pollution they ever inhale. The EPA estimates that the lifetime cancer risk from wood 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, a property that allows them to remain suspended in the atmosphere, penetrate homes with little resistance, be inhaled more easily and be less likely to be exhaled.

Contributing to the toxicity of wood smoke are high concentrations of toxic chemicals like dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The EPA estimates that a single fireplace operating for one hour, burning 10 pounds of wood, will generate more PAHs than 6,000 packs of cigarettes. Other estimates are even higher. The chemicals in the smoke are also easily absorbed through our skin.

Wood smoke particles become distributed by the blood throughout the body, causing inflammation and biologic disruption wherever they go. New research has confirmed pollution nanoparticles, such as those from wood smoke, become literally embedded in our organs. A recent autopsy study found up to 22 billion pollution nanoparticles per gram of tissue in the heart muscle of young patients that had lived in a heavily polluted city. The average age of the patients was only 25 years old. Every patient had significant contamination, even toddler-aged children.

Other studies have found similar contamination of our brains, lungs, kidneys, blood vessels, and in the case of a pregnant mother, the placenta, which means the fetus and newborns are contaminated as well. Even short-term pollution spikes, like from an evening of wood burning, leave these particles in our bodies, causing biologic damage for months afterwards. Some of these particles may never leave.

Air pollution is the fourth leading cause of death. An incomplete list of the diseases associated with air pollution includes: heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, most lung diseases, birth defects, miscarriages, still births, pregnancy complications, Type II diabetes, arthritis, pneumonia, and virtually all types of infections. Because air pollution damages chromosomes, it even harms the unborn. Because it damages sperm and egg cells it even harms the unconceived.

As I write this, the entire country is overwhelmed with a deadly pandemic which has added a new reason to address our air pollution. The COVID virus can hitch a ride onto particulate pollution and increase its potential for spread from one person to the next. Once infected, acute and chronic pollution makes the disease more potent and more lethal to its victims.

Public policy and local ordinances on wood burning must be updated for the science, and prioritize the health of those affected. The science says wood smoke is the new cigarette smoke, and no one should be involuntarily exposed.

Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and board chairman for Doctors and Scientists Against Wood Smoke Pollution. He can be reached at  [email protected].

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