Well, old man winter just keeps hanging on here in Missouri. Like many Missourians, particularly the ones out where I live, I continue to cut wood almost daily to heat the house. Now the government wants to stop me from burning wood because of the health risks it brings. The Obama administration wants the 2.4 million homes that rely on wood heat to suddenly stop. Good advice and better for everyone, but highly impractical and unenforceable for many.
Wood stoves produce noxious gases. We all know that. All you have to do is enter my house and you will smell the wood smoke in any room. Like second-hand and third-hand smoke, wood smoke produces some of the same toxins as cigarette smoke or gas exhaust from my car. Making it even more dangerous is that many of the particulate matter is smaller in size, from 2.5 microns and up, enabling the matter to go deep into the lungs. At particular risk are infants, the elderly, and those whose breathing or circulatory systems are already compromised.
Wood stoves have been improved. Most built after 1992 are cleaner and more efficient than those in previous years. Still, scientists continue to find more ear infections, along with adults suffering increased respiratory symptoms, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, development of chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks, and premature death in those already bothered with heart or lung diseases.
People around me burn wood not because it is romantic, but because fossils fuels are expensive and wood is plentiful. The people are not the villans. That award goes to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are found in tobacco smoke, along with nitrogen oxides, benzene, formaldehyde and dioxins. These elements not only aggravate airways, but can also change DNA within the body to make otherwise healthy individuals trigger responses that lead to cancers and other conditions.
I have been interested to know why we know so much about the gases emitted by our cars and by our factories, and so little about those produced by our wood stoves and fireplaces. Any asthma educator can tell you that we always advise asthmatics be keep away from wood heat sources. Still, other than knowing "it is bad for you" we really do not know much.
Many cities have enacted "clean air days" where burning wood is limited or illegal. Though I think Mr. Obama's intention is good in limiting exposure to the hazards of wood smoke, his implementation by the EPA is completely off base. Though he may not burn wood in the White House, many people, particularly in rural communities, need to burn wood to stay warm. For some, like me, it is a choice. Rather than rely on the electric grid which is, at best, spotty in my community and expensive in every community I know, I choose the exercise and self-sustainability of burning wood. I have electric heat, but am often able to use it sparingly because of the two wood stoves in my cabin.
In my opinion, we need to do more studies on how wood heat affects us. In particular, we need to study who is and is not at risk. I do not know how old my wood stoves are, or even if they are pre- or post-1992 vintage. I only they know they keep me warm during the winter. I know I am exposing myself to harmful gases and accept that risk during the winter months in Missouri. I also know when the electricity goes off, I will still be warm while you, using expensive fossil fuels that are non-renewable, will not.
An open discussion needs to be held about the effects of wood heating not only on those doing it, but those around the burners who are also exposed when those same chemicals come out of my chimney. In my case, my nearest neighbor is a mile away, so they are probably OK. In some cities or areas prone to "thick" air that does not move, however, this, too, could be a problem. 2.4 million homes use wood as a heat source. The EPA's policy of banning wood stoves altogether and allowing people to sue for permission to stay warm is stupid, irresponsible, and typical political garbage. It does, however, raise an important point that all respiratory therapists should be aware of when examining a patient. It may be that person with shortness of breath in the ED is not smoking at all as you may suspect. He or she may just be trying to stay warm.
That's just my opinion,
Jim Thacker, MBA, MHA, CRT, AE-C