Guest Commentary: Research Sheds Light on Wood Burning

By Alan Kandel

Note: Alan Kandel did this article originally for the California Progress Report. Since this issue is coming on the city council’s agenda for next week, it seemed like a good article to post here as well. The wood burning issue is not a Davis issue per se, it is an issue that many communities are having to grapple with due to state and federal regulations and new research that shows possible health risks of exposure to wood burning smoke. A Google search of the issue shows how widespread it has become in California particularly.

It’s 2009 and it is no secret – or it shouldn’t be a secret at this point for that matter – that the San Joaquin Valley – located in the state’s mid-section – has some of the worst air quality in the nation. I’m frequently reminded of this through newspaper articles, broadcast news accounts and through use of my own two eyes, nose and lungs. But not all is doom and gloom for just today in the Fresno Bee news article, “Valley wood-burning bans rise, deaths fall,” the message is that consistent with wood-burning bans initiated by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District beginning in 2003, in 2004, there were fewer recorded deaths that could be directly attributed to the burning of wood in fireplaces, stoves, etc.

Bee environmental reporter, Mark Grossi writes:

“The wood-burning bans are preventing at least 50 premature deaths each year in the Fresno-Clovis area and about 30 annually in Bakersfield, a new study suggests.

“The study was completed last month by David Lighthall, who is the health and science advisor for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.”

“Lighthall did the research while working as a scientist for the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at California State University, Fresno.”

According to Grossi and as I understand it, the scientist argues the stricter SJVAPCD air rule – regarding tightening fireplace wood-burning restrictions – “is justified.”

Making the connection between fewer deaths and more fireplace wood-burning restrictions, couldn’t have been easy. Nevertheless, the information is in the report, which can be found here.

Grossi writes:

“Mounting research shows the microscopic soot from wood burning is among the biggest air-pollution threats to the public. The specks, known as PM-2.5, can evade body defenses, lodge in the lungs, trigger many illnesses and result in premature death.”

Specifically, “fireplaces focus PM-2.5 where many people live,” Grossi reveals, something even I can affirm in my own neighborhood, especially on the evening of December 26th. Standing outside on my patio that evening was indeed a very unpleasant experience as the air was more heavily laden with woodsmoke than usual, presumably caused by more neighbors burning wood in their fireplaces than what would typically be the case.

Grossi notes also,

“To determine the impact of the air district’s burning bans, Lighthall studied PM-2.5 exposures in three years before the rule was passed.

“He found that 54 fewer people would have died in the Fresno-Clovis area if the burning bans had been called in 2001 and 2003 (sic)

“Sixty-three fewer people would have died in 2002.”

The incentive for or benefit of not burning wood in one’s fireplace with regular frequency or otherwise, should be obvious. Question is: Is it really?

This article originally appeared on the California Progress Report.


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

18 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Research Sheds Light on Wood Burning”

  1. Philip Morris

    Of course Davis is not in the San Joaquin. It also has a much smaller population than Fresno-Clovis or Bakersfield so it is fair to assume that the environmental impact is smaller.

  2. Anonymous

    A HUGE difference between the southern San Joaquin Valley and Davis is the air flow. We have winds, year round, which blow in from the Bay toward the mountains and north winds blow our air out to the south. In Fresno and Bakersfield, the air is trapped.Also, what is not said in this article is who is suffering health problems from wood smoke. It's not people who have a neighbor who burns wood. It's actually the people who choose to burn wood to keep warm. Those folks, probably all poor, are endangering themselves, not anyone else. Therefore, it makes no sense for the government to step in, unless you think it is the job of the government to protect people from making free choices which you think are not wise. If that is your belief, then you don't understand what it means to live in a free society.

  3. Anonymous

    Since 1984, more than 327 children, 89 percent between the ages of 7 months and 15 months, have drowned in buckets containing water or other liquids used for mopping floors and other household chores. It is estimated that 30 children drown annually in buckets.Why have we not banned buckets yet?If the reason for banning the wood-burning is to save lives, then why have we not banned cars or obesity yet?Those folks, probably all poor, are endangering themselves, not anyone else.I agree. It is probably the people doing the burning that are putting themselves in danger. Let them make their own choice.

  4. Robin W

    Generalizing from this study to what Davis should do makes no sense at all. Our air flow conditions in Davis are markedly different than in the San Joaquin Valley. We have a serious need for some hard data about the number of days per year and the precise weather conditions that cause PM 2.5 to be above healthy limits in Davis (and hard data about what those healthy limits are if they are anything beyond the federal standard). How can anyone be considering a regulation without that sort of information? This issue reminds me of the toad tunnels and the noise ordinance being applied against a person for snoring. Concern about wildlife, noise, and air pollution is legitimate. But hard data is necessary in order to determine what (if anything) needs to be done about these things.

  5. George Galamba

    In my opinion, the main problem with this whole issue is the draconian approach that this blog and the Natural Resources Commission has taken in regards to wood smoke. By attempting to ban ALL wood burning, including EPA certified stoves and even pellet stoves, plus trying to pass extreme penalities (up to $1,000 in fines AND 6 months in jail), the effect has been to define the issue in terms of …asthmatics… and …polluters,… and to pit neighbor against neighbor. I own an EPA II certified stove, and have been a member of the Sierra Club for many years. I think there is clearly room for compromise and reasonable restrictions, especially on open hearth fireplaces and old noncertified stoves. Unfortunately, the debate has been framed in such a way that there is no room for compromise–you are either a polluter or a victim.

  6. Anonymous

    Phillip Morris said: …so it is fair to assume that the environmental impact is smaller…Anonymous said: …We have winds, year round… -and- paraphrased: …It’s the poor people who are dying because they need to keep warm….Add specious bucket arguments and a call for yet more research and…Wow! I have never read so much denial in the Vanguard comments section. Folks, the science is there: Wood burning equates small particulate pollution equates respiratory illness equates death. Causality! To Phillip Morris — Since Davis is smaller, we would have less deaths from this choking pollution? So a few premature deaths per year are OK with you so you may continue to enjoy your 18th-century creature comforts?To Anonymous: There are no delta breezes in Winter, the conditions mimic the San Joaquin very closely. Your specious arguments on freedom of choice devolve to my right to drive at 70mph in downtown Davis. And I wish someone would show me any poor person who has a fireplace and lives west of 113 or south of 80 or north of Covell. I’d argue that can’t be done even under the most liberal interpretation of …poor…. And that, geographically, is where most fireplaces are. If there are any poor in Davis, and statistically there are a few, most live in apartments , not houses, and do not have fireplaces.As I stated in an earlier comment on the subject: …You can not continue to have your 18th century ambience while living in 21st century population proximity. Solution for our open hearth diehards: Move to rural Montana or, better yet, become S. Palin’s neighbors. Sheeesh!

  7. Don Shor

    "There are no delta breezes in Winter, the conditions mimic the San Joaquin very closely."We do have similar foggy periods, but we also have coastal influence to a far greater degree than they do further south in the Valley. The wind speed given as a threshold for public health, during the first discussion of this last summer, was 5 mph. Alan Pryor commented:"EPA Phase II fireplaces can not be safely used at wind speeds less than 5 mph +/-."Wind speed was < 5 mph about 40% of the time between November 1 and February 28 last winter. It is almost never the case on rainy days, and on those days the high temperature is usually several degrees below average. So it seems unreasonable to tell people that they can't use wood-burning devices on rainy days, when they are most likely to derive greatest benefit from them and when the EPA Phase II fireplaces, according to Alan Pryor's threshold wind speed, are not harmful.

  8. wdf

    Also, what is not said in this article is who is suffering health problems from wood smoke. It’s not people who have a neighbor who burns wood. It’s actually the people who choose to burn wood to keep warm. Those folks, probably all poor, are endangering themselves, not anyone else. Could you offer some documentation of this? Thanks.

  9. Alan Pryor, Yolo Clean Air

    To George Galamba and Don Shor – I think you gentlemenn both have not read the entire ordinance lately. Use of EPA Phase II stoves and pellet stoves are allowed indefinately (as in …not banned…)as long as winds speed are equal to or greater than 5 mph and PM concentrations are less than 25 ug/m3. Based on historical data, wood burning would be restricted about half the 120-day burn season each year in Davis (or about 60 days) under the currently proposed ordinance. This is incrementally only slightly higher than the projected number of No-Burn days in Fresno (48) and Bakersfield (44) each year.The proposed Davis ordinance is different than that used by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, however, in that the Davis ordinance specifically recognizes that there can be substantial neighborhood impact of wood smoke which is very wind-dependent and determined by the type of wood stove or fireplace one’s upwind neighbor is using is using. These concentrations are not at all correlated with the regional PM concentrations. In other words, if someone is burning one or two houses directly upwind from you under low wind speeds, you will very likely be exposed to PM concentrations in excess of federal standards even if there is NO PM at all in the regional air. To: wdfThere is very good epidemiological data that shows that children that live in homes that burn wood suffer from increased respiratory diseases and infections – see …Woodsmoke Health Effects: A Review… – Journal of Inhalation Toxicology 19:67

  10. Don Shor

    Thanks, Alan, you are correct that I have been responding to comments based on the older proposals.Here is what David posted on the previous thread about the current proposals, staff vs. commission:…Staff recommendations: a) Work with Dr. Cahill and the YSAQMD to establish monitoring to gather specific air quality information, to be used in assessing what further restrictions may be in order; b) Adopt the following wood burning restrictions: Establish burn/no burn days based on Federal air quality standard of PM2.5 of 35 ug/m3 and apply the same criteria to open hearth and non-certified appliances. Restrictions do not include the eventual ban on open hearth an non-certified appliances. Further restrictions will be revisited once air quality data is collected and analyzed. c) Work more closely with the YSAQMD to disseminate all manner of information on the wood burning, i.e., health effects, proper burning techniques, etc; d) Pursue programs that would encourage the change out of old appliances and the conversion of open hearth. This can be done through promotion of YSAQMD

  11. Don Shor

    I am curious whether burning in open-hearth and non-certified appliances could still be disallowed under non-health-threatening atmospheric conditions; i.e., windy or rainy days. Also, it seems to me that the …6 hours per day… and …dry seasoned wood… parts might as well be removed from any final ordinance, since they are unenforceable.

  12. Nancy Price

    It is interesting to me how hard it has been for residents in the San Joaquin and other areas to get relief from state/federal regulatory agencies to stop huge corporate dairies that harm public health and the environment by polluting air, land and water for which there is excellent scientific data. I can only conclude, that, regardless of date, it is easier to blame and regulate the natural person – the individual wood-burning home-owner, rather than the illegitimate corporate person – dairies – that use a variety of means to influence political campaigns, government policy, regulation and enforcement.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for