The growing danger of wood burning
Fourteen-year-old Shannon Haller can’t go outside when pollution levels in Chico are high. “Pretty much any time there’s smoke around, I start to have all sorts of problems,” she said. “I can’t breathe. It scares me to death. It’s just like being trapped underwater. On the way to the hospital, every few seconds you wonder if this is your last breath.”
Shannon is one of thousands in Chico living with asthma and other conditions affected by air pollution on a day-to-day basis.
Chico is the third-worst area in the state when it comes to tiny airborne particulates, invisible to the human eye. Called PM 2.5, for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, these particles are too small to be stopped by the body’s defense mechanisms and can become lodged deep in the lungs.
“It’s likely that people are being killed by the levels of particulate air pollution seen in Chico,” said Joel Schwartz, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who has published numerous studies on the health effects of air pollution. “In fact levels considerably lower than those seen do kill people. And it’s completely avoidable.
“When we look at towns that have changed the amount of particles in their air, life expectancy has gone up, and the more that particles have been reduced, the more that life expectancy has improved.”
PM 2.5 pollution is known to cause and aggravate cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, respiratory infections, asthma attacks, and a host of other lung problems including abnormal lung development in children. Most at risk are children and the elderly, as well as anyone with certain medical conditions including diabetes. Approximately 8,800 premature deaths each year are attributed to air pollution statewide—more than twice the number killed in vehicle accidents.
“Children are particularly susceptible to the disease-producing effects of particulate pollution,” said Dr. Gary Incaudo, a professor at the UC Davis School of Medicine and a Chico resident since 1979.
“The incidence of asthma has quadrupled in the last decade or two and incidence of allergy doubled. There is more chronic lung disease than ever before. Much of this can be attributed to air pollution.
“An analogy is to think of it as a slow-growing cancer that isn’t noticed until enough of the organ is destroyed; then you get sick, and generally it’s too late.”
In Chico, there are two main sources of PM 2.5 pollution. The first, present year-round, is vehicles, including diesel vehicles that give off particles that are highly toxic. Winter months are when Chico often experiences days with extremely high PM 2.5 levels. On these days, monitoring shows that most of the pollution —around 75 percent—comes from fireplaces, wood-burning heaters and backyard burn piles.
“What the data are showing us is that when the rice fields are burning it’s not usually the same time as we’re having all of these high PM 2.5 levels,” said Gail Williams, a senior air quality planner with the Butte County Air Quality Management District.
“Some comes from agricultural land, but we know which days that’s happening because we have a daily log of what’s being burned there. … We know our pollution sources, and we know what percentage they are contributing to.”
People have been using wood for heat so long they don’t associate it with health problems, Williams explained. “But the issue that keeps coming up is density. Twenty-five years ago, there weren’t this many people around.”
Wood has the advantage of being a renewable resource, and people naturally want to keep using it, Williams added. “So we have to look at that versus the impact of the burning. It’s not going to be an easy choice, but clearly in Chico because of the high levels we do have to do something.”
Dr. Mark Lundberg, Butte County’s public health officer, is joining the efforts to raise awareness. “It’s under the radar for most people. At first it’s shocking. I like to think of the place that I live in as being beautiful, clean, pristine. This clouds that.”
The next several months, before particle levels get high again next winter, provide an opportunity to educate people about the problem and gain their support, Lundberg said. “People are always very sensitive about regulation encroaching on their lives … but there is a time and a place. When people see this information I think they’re going to want to join to do what we can to support our good health.”
Last month, air quality officials in the Bay Area proposed a draft regulation banning wood burning on the most polluted days. “We feel the rule would be effective in protecting health in our community,” explained Karen Schkolnick, of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Like Butte County, which has a program called “Don’t Light Tonight,” the BAAQMD has had a voluntary program, called “Spare the Air,” that asked residents not to burn on bad-air nights. Schkolnick described it as effective but not enough: “While we had only 18 percent of residents who refrained voluntarily from burning … our surveys show that around 80 percent would support a new rule and would comply with it.”
Chico Mayor Andy Holcombe is looking forward to an analysis of the various approaches being taken by other communities dealing with particulate pollution. He believes action can and should be taken in Chico.
“There’s a cost to not doing it, in terms of health care and how our next generation of children are going to be,” he said. “It’s a wake-up call. Are our heads in the sand? The cost to the community of health problems is enormous.
“It’s tough, because for some people wood burning is the only source of heat. That’s why we need affordable and sustainable practices for all our energy uses and certainly to develop solar and other types of heat.”
Shannon’s mom, Jennifer Haller, hopes that something is done soon. “As a mother you feel helpless. You’re constantly watching out at night and worried if you’re going to have to take her to the hospital and if she’s going to make it through this one.”
She urges people to consider others: “Think about your neighbors, your friends and their children, and the health of everybody around. Children are getting seriously damaged.
“If people like the aesthetic of seeing a fireplace across the room … how about the aesthetic of saving someone’s life, saving someone from a hospital visit? Nobody would want their child to have to go through that. Take it upon yourself to protect the people around you.”