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Giving Thanks for Air Toxins? No Thanks!

Autumn rings in many things—pumpkin pie, beautifully-colored fall leaves, celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends, and the smell of wood smoke in the air. While a fire may be delightfully warm and cozy for you, it could be creating a hazardous environment for your neighbor that will have him feeling not so warm and fuzzy about you.

GASP asks homeowners to think about the implications of burning wood. If you live in a city neighborhood, chances are the homes are relatively close together, and the smoke from your chimney could be entering your neighbor’s home. While wood smoke may seem benign when compared to air pollution created by vehicles and factories, it is quite toxic.

Wood smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic matter burn. Carbon monoxide, benzene, dioxin, phenols, aldehydes, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides are released when wood is burned. Many of these components are found in cigarette smoke. Exposure to wood smoke has been associated with reduced lung function, exacerbations of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, middle ear infections, and cancer. Children and infants, pregnant women, and those with cardiovascular or respiratory disease are especially vulnerable.

According to the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities’ (CHEC) Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis (PRETA) Report on particulate matter (PM), the second-most common source of PM2.5 in Allegheny County is residential fuel consumption for heating. CHEC says, “Interestingly, burning of wood (fireplaces, wood stoves, etc.) contributes the vast majority of this source (1,600 tons) compared with less than 20 tons from the use of gas or oil heat.”

In addition to the deleterious air pollution you are creating when lighting up the fireplace, you may actually be robbing your house of heat, because a draft is created which pulls the heated air inside your home up the chimney. GASP recommends that you consider alternatives other than wood burning, such as weatherization and insulation to reduce household heating costs.

You might think that the air pollution regulations in Allegheny County only affect industrial sources, but in fact, homeowners are also prohibited from allowing foul odors to leave their property. In addition, smoke emissions can not exceed an opacity of 20% for more than three minutes in any sixty minute period, or exceed an opacity of 60% at any time. If your smoke is thicker than that, you are in violation of the County’s Visible Emissions Regulation.

If you smell malodors or see excessive smoke you should call the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) at 412-687-2243 each and every time. ACHD has acknowledged that wood smoke is a large contributor to received complaints. Roughly one-third are about wood burning. ACHD has recently taken up their open burning regulation for revisions—stay tuned here for updates. And Happy, toxic-free Thanksgiving!

Rachel Filippini, Executive Director

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