Sunday, October 23, 2011

Burn in Hell

    It's understandable that people enjoy having fires in their fireplaces. Those flickering flames are beautiful, hypnotic, comforting and cozy, not to mention toasty warm.
    All I ask is that those who indulge in this age-old pleasure observe one little act of conscience: VENT YOUR EMISSIONS INTO YOUR OWN LIVING SPACE. You should be the ones who have to inhale all that smoke, rather than inflicting it on the rest of us. It seems only fair to me.
    In order for us to coexist peaceably and pleasantly with our neighbors, there are rules that restrict our behavior. For example, it is against the law for you to let weeds flourish in your yard. It is against the law for you not to shovel your sidewalk. It is against the law to play loud music at late-night parties. It's against the law for your barking dogs to disturb those around you. It is against the law to store your own car on your own lawn. We have standards. They require that we show a little bit of consideration for each other.
    It is against the law to trespass, to commit assault or to endanger the lives of others, but that is exactly what woodburning does: It creeps onto our property and demonstrably damages our bodies and shortens our lives. It can -- and does -- dramatically affect our quality of life.
    Why do we permit a relatively few people to have such a horrendous impact on our shared environment?
     It would be classier of my neighbors  to come on over and shit in my yard (bring the whole family) than to inundate me, and everyone else, with their sooty, toxic waste materials. Having a fire in this day and age is a "personal freedom" we should no longer tolerate. 
    I realize that when you're sitting inside at the hearth -- aglow with pleasure, innocently enjoying a winter evening -- you don't really sense that you are ravaging the world outside your door. 
So innocent, so classy, so darned inviting!
     But you are. The air all around your home is thick with smoke. To anyone who knows what this pollution does to his body, it is sickening to be within blocks of your glowing little tableaux of self-satisfied domesticity.
     Health and air-quality officials across the country are concerned about the smoke that pours each winter from the nearly 45 million home chimneys and 10 million wood stoves. 
    Inhaling wood smoke appears to be at least as dangerous as inhaling tobacco smoke, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  Its study concluded that breathing wood smoke particles during a brisk afternoon walk is equivalent to smoking 4 to 16 cigarettes.
    The federal government estimates that a single fireplace operating for an hour will generate 4,300 times more fine particulate pollution than 30 cigarettes, says David Brown, Public Health Toxicologist at Fairfield University.
    Wood smoke contains many of the same chemicals as cigarette smoke, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, hazardous metals, and known carcinogens such as formaldehyde, dioxin, benzene, and toluene, the agency states.
   We don't let smokers anywhere near us anymore. Why do we tolerate these bigger, badder "smokers" that devastate our winter air? 
   Moreover, people aren't just putting clean timber in their fireplaces, as you can easily detect if you're out there breathing it. Air-quality monitors confirm that painted or varnished wood, plastics, rubber, garbage and products that contain accelerants, dyes and chemical fragrances are commonly burned as well.
    In much of the country, winter air is terrible even without fireplace emissions.  
This is what today's weather guys refer to as "crystal clear blue skies."
    The EPA maintains that the use of wood for residential heating contributes up to 50 percent of the deadliest particulate organic air pollutants during the winter, which are highly carcinogenic at relatively low levels, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. (In areas where wood is the principal heating fuel, as much as 80 percent of this category of pollutants is produced in home fireplaces, the Olympic Clean Air Agency in Washington State reports.) 
     I noticed that as soon as nighttime lows hit 50 degrees a few weeks ago, the fireplaces went into high gear. People can hardly wait.
    I had just spent a summer in which I repeatedly had to turn the swamp cooler off (even though my bedroom was over 80 degrees) because our home was being  filled with smoke from barbeque grills. How I love lying there inhaling cremated animals.
   Now it's the fireplaces.
    This is all very tiresome. It's hard to keep the rage from bursting forth in some destructive way. 
It's a good thing that I don't own a rocket launcher or
leather hotpants. When I'm being poisoned, I get very cranky.
    It has been years since I've been able to sleep with the window open. I love the cold air flowing over my face, and I had been doing it since childhood. But now, my neighborhood is filled with the intense smell of smoke every night -- all night -- and for much of the day.
    When I go jogging at 5 a.m., the smoke is everywhere. Just as the caustic vapors from one fireplace begin to dissipate, I get hit with someone else's suffocating emissions (along with all the cars and trucks that are being "warmed up" along the street). 
    It doesn't matter what the official air quality designation is. According to the EPA, if you can smell smoke -- whether it's wildfire smoke from miles away or from your clueless neighbors down the street -- THE AIR IS UNHEALTHY.
   "Mammalian lungs don't have defenses against small particles," points out Joel Schwartz of the EPA and Harvard School of Public Health. "Particulate pollution is the most important contaminant in our air, and we're getting a lot of it from people's fireplaces. We know that when particle levels go up, people die."
I hope you're having the time of your life, because you're killing the rest of  us.
    Why should our fellow citizens have the right to infringe on us in this way?
    I used to love to go outside on a cold, winter night when the snowfall had just ended and the sky had cleared. Shoveling the sidewalk was a joy, because the scene was incredibly beautiful. It was so quiet. The air was so clean. The sky was midnight blue with lots of stars, and the snow sparkled like a Christmas card. 
    It was virtually a religious experience being out there. My neighbors and I exclaimed at the exhilaration of experiencing this breathtaking moment.
    That all changed several years ago, when the neighborhood became chronically filled with choking smoke. There were the fireplaces, of course. And then the anesthesiologist next door, a "clean-air advocate" who drove a red SUV, installed a fire pit in her backyard so she could be comfortable outside, even in the winter.
A fire pit can be delightful, if you have no consideration for your neighbors.
     Another neighbor had an even more disgusting device: Known as an outdoor wood boiler, it's a shed where a wood fire heats water, using no pollution filter. Pipes carry the water into the home for heat and hot water. The assault of this acrid smoke, which was shockingly dense even blocks away, made me feel that I was trapped inside my house. Enjoying nature was no longer an option for me.
    Tens of thousands of these boilers have been sold nationally since 1999, according to the New York Attorney General's Office.
Outdoor wood boilers, like the one my neighbors have, produce massive amounts of
smoke, but it creates such a comfortable home for them, we're supposed not to mind.
The smoke can be so thick that those living nearby are encouraged to seal up their homes even more tightly, to cement their chimneys closed and to avoid outdoor activity. 
    But now I have learned that I can't take refuge from all this filthy air even in my own home.
    "The largest single source of fine particles entering our homes in many American cities is our neighbor's fireplace or wood stove," says Dr. Wayne Ott of Stanford University.
    A study at the University of Washington in Seattle showed that 50-70 percent of the outdoor levels of wood smoke was entering homes that were not burning wood. An EPA study in Boise reached similar results. 
    So thanks to a very small minority of our neighbors who love that comforting homeyness that a fire provides, both our indoor air and our outdoor air are hugely impacted. 
Salt Lake City's "quality of life" is its biggest selling point. Pathetic!
     The air quality here had become so absurd that we had planned to move to Bellingham, WA., when family circumstances permitted. Several years ago, it was rated as having the cleanest air in the country. Since then, I have noticed a dramatic deterioration, as reported by the EPA, and I corresponded with Bellingham's air-quality director to find out why. 
    He told me that the culprit was wood burning. When the price of heating oil and natural gas went up, he said, a large percentage of the population began to rely on fireplace heat. Even when the costs went back down, he said, fireplace use remained high.
    "It's fair to say that it's ruined our city," he said. He admitted to me that he was moving to Colorado Springs, because he has two children who suffer from asthma. "I really feel that it's a life-or-death issue for my family," he added.       
    About six tons of fine particulate soot is emitted from wood burning every day in the Los Angeles area, according to the Los Angeles Times. New regulations restricting fireplace use on red air-quality days will reduce that by an average of only one ton a day. 

The inhalable particle pollution from one woodstove is equivalent to the particle pollution emitted by 3,000 gas furnaces producing the same amount of heat per unit, data from the California Air Resources Board indicate.
Adorable but highly irresponsible. Just use it for decoration.
     For those people who truly can't afford to use a furnace, I say let's just pay their bills for them. 
    All that pollution aside, conventional fireplaces are extremely inefficient, sometimes even having negative energy efficiency, according to Home Energy Magazine. 
   "In most homes, conventional wood-burning fireplaces are between -10 percent and +10 percent efficient. They supply little if any heat to the house, particularly with cold outside temperatures," a recent article reports.
    Field trials conducted by the Combustion and Carbonization Research Laboratory (CCRL) of fireplaces in Canadian homes have shown that on cold winter days, use of conventional masonry fireplaces results in an increase in fossil-fuel consumption for heating. The fireplaces actually had a negative energy efficiency during the tests
    State and municipal governments across the country are addressing this issue, if at all, in a very timid and half-assed way. 
    The few that have dared to propose a complete ban on woodburning have met with the same outrage as those which have sought to ban handguns. A highly vocal, mobilized minority screams that having a fire is a "God-given right," and they have prevailed time after time.
"Oh, by the way Adam, have a fire whenever you feel like it. I can always create another Earth."
    "This is a personal pleasure," a homebuilder told the Los Angeles Times. "It's one of the few things they can enjoy -- besides a television, I guess -- that makes it a home."
    Come on, people -- let's update our pleasures a bit. We stopped being cavemen and prairie pioneers quite awhile ago.
    Many municipalities are requiring that new homes be equipped with gas fireplaces or pellet-burning wood stoves while continuing to permit existing units to pour forth, unregulated, with their choking excrement.
    A number of state and municipal governments -- particularly those that experience one inversion after another during the winter -- have adopted a lightheartedly named "spare the air" program.
    These outrageously timid protocols permit wood burning until the pollution levels become unhealthy. At that point, residents are urged or ordered not to burn. 
    This is such a flaccid, stupid, gutless approach that it wouldn't bother me if they scrapped it altogether. 
    Long after the air is so filthy that you can see, taste and smell it, our meteorologists cheerfully report that, "It's fine to fire up the old fireplace tonight. But judging from how strong the inversion is, tomorrow night might be a different story." 
    Only when the air becomes virtually lethal do they reluctantly ask us to "refrain from burning tonight." I wish somebody would have the guts to draft and enforce a policy that actually values public health more than the festive exhilaration of a "roaring fire."
    If the air gets scoured out by some beautiful, thrashing blizzard,  we do briefly have clean air -- but people are already filling it up with pollution again. You can check your state's website and watch the numbers shoot right back up, hour by hour. 
    It's asinine to wait until the air gets oppressively bad -- which we know it will -- before prohibiting the burning of wood.
    It should be illegal, period.
    This is "Trial by Fire" by artist Lorenze Sperlonga:
I'm perfectly willing to use sex (or whatever it takes) to sell a ban on woodburning.
    Instead of throwing gasoline on the burning issue of air quality, let's throw water on all those fires. They have become a pleasure that we can no longer afford, as Michelle LaLonde of Montreal wrote in her 2009 book, "Falling Out of Love with Fireplaces." 
    "Care to Make a Difference," with 17 million members worldwide, lobbied leaders in the U.S. and Europe and the International Panel on Climate Change for a total ban on woodburning except in emergency situations. They received little support, despite their documentation that such a ban could have an immediate, major impact on global pollution.
    Surely each of us can find many forms of enjoyment that don't hurt other people. And with seven billion people now inhabiting the same sphere, we're going to have to become ever more cognizant of our obligations to our fellow beings. We have already evolved in many ways to accommodate our changing world and our imperiled environment. Giving up your fireplace is a gesture of solidarity with the push to keep our planet and our human race on a harmonious and viable path.

An increase in the percentage of urban populations in Europe being exposed to levels of particulate matter from 2010 to 2011 suggested some backsliding, the report said. The development was attributed to dry spells in the period, which slow the dispersal of particulates. But it also could reveal a growing reliance on wood burning for home heating in some countries during the financial crisis, the agency said.