Crosscut: Where There's Smoke, There's Sickness

Source: Robert McClur (InvestigateWest) and Katie Campbell (KCTS Earthfix), Crosscut, December 16, 2011. In Washington wood smoke is now the leading cause of air pollution, leaving residents of Tacoma and other highly-polluted areas, literally, gasping for air.

The warning label on the wrapping of neatly split firewood is one we’re more accustomed to seeing on cigarettes or heavy-duty chemicals — “known… to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm.”

But in fact, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, asthma attacks, and premature death – in addition to cancer – are all linked to wood smoke pollution. It’s a finding that poses a vexing dilemma for poor and rural communities around the Northwest, where wood is a cheap or even free source of heat.

And in Tacoma, where the air is so dirty it violates the Clean Air Act, authorities are gearing up for what promises to be an arduous and expensive campaign, over the better part of a decade, to clean up wood smoke pollution. It’s an effort that already has some residents chafing at government interference, and one that will set the stage for policy in other Northwest communities when they bump up against tightened federal pollution standards.

In Tacoma and many other towns across the Northwest, wood smoke is the prime culprit in driving spikes of sooty, toxic air pollution that leave some residents — particularly asthmatics, kids, and the elderly — gasping for breath. It’s especially bad during sunny, cold stretches like those we’ve seen in recent weeks, because atmospheric conditions trap the pollution close to the ground.

Along with fireplaces and other wood-burning heaters, old wood stoves produce about half the microscopic particles of soot that typically hang in the air when winter air stagnates. (By comparison, industry — already heavily regulated — emits just one-tenth of the Tacoma-area soot pollution.)

In Washington, the state Ecology Department estimates that sooty pollution from sources including wood smoke and diesel exhaust contributes to 1,100 deaths and $190 million in health costs annually.

The department says a conservative estimate of the annual number of deaths attributable to soot pollution in Pierce County alone is 140.

The toll in everyday suffering is less easily quantified. But Nancy Gregory, an asthma sufferer who lives southeast of Tacoma near Spanaway, is typical. She says she dreads having to go outside when the winter sky turns blue and air-cleansing rains stop.

Read the entire article here.