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Best of 2011: Where there's smoke, there's sickness

In Washington wood smoke is now a leading cause of air pollution, leaving residents of Tacoma and other highly-polluted areas, literally, gasping for air.

This EPA-certified wood stove cuts emissions from wood-burning significantly. The average stove costs about $2,500.

This EPA-certified wood stove cuts emissions from wood-burning significantly. The average stove costs about $2,500. Katie Campbell/EarthFix

Smoke coming from fireplaces and wood stoves has been linked to a host of health effects including heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and asthma attacks. Wood stoves that are more than 20 years old are no longer legal to sell or purchase in Washington due to the significant pollution they generate.

Smoke coming from fireplaces and wood stoves has been linked to a host of health effects including heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and asthma attacks. Wood stoves that are more than 20 years old are no longer legal to sell or purchase in Washington due to the significant pollution they generate. Katie Campbell/EarthFix

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we revisit coverage about the environment.

This story, by Robert McClure and Katie Campbell, first appeared December 16. 

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.

“When I walk out to the mailbox, I come back in and sometimes I’m wheezing and I have to go to my inhalers. It makes it hard for me to breathe,” said Gregory, 70. For her husband Bryan, 73, it’s even worse. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and must breathe from an oxygen tank most of the time. When winter weather turns nice they try to stay inside — but eventually they have to buy groceries and go to doctor’s appointments.

“If he gets a coughing attack, he needs a chair,” Gregory said. “We can’t just let him be walking. He needs something to hold himself up on.”

Restricting the use of the wood stoves that heat so many homes across the Northwest is a difficult proposition though, because many people can get wood for cheap or free, and using a wood stove can greatly reduce electricity and natural-gas bills that run wild in the winter. Installing a new clean-burning stove typically costs $2,000 or more — and many argue that it’s lousy timing to launch an expensive campaign to clean the air; federal standards or no federal standards.

Yet that’s the recommendation of a task force representing local governments, industry, the military, and others involved with soot pollution levels in and around Tacoma. Last week the group voted to recommend removal of all wood stoves that don’t meet current government standards by 2015, in the area violating the Clean Air Act.

“It scares me,” said Gretchen Smith of Puyallup, whose family spends about $380 a month on electricity, including baseboard heaters, even when they use wood heat as a supplemental heat source.


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