One person's back-yard burn is others' bane

  • Article by: CAROL DINES
  • Updated: June 19, 2011 - 8:22 PM

Those popular fire pits pose a real hazard to air quality, especially in cities.

This product image courtesy of Fire Pit Art shows their heavy duty copper basin fire pit.

Photo: (AP), Associated Press

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It's a beautiful summer evening. I'm enjoying dinner on our front porch when suddenly the wind shifts, and I smell smoke. My eyes start to burn and my chest becomes tight.

I use my inhaler, close my windows and turn on my air conditioning, with its air-filtering system. If the smoke continues well into the night, I will have to take steroids to suppress my immune system.

Like 9 million children and 16 million adults in America (7.5 percent of the population, according to a 2004 study), I have asthma.

Outside fireplaces and fire pits continue to proliferate, and neighborhood tensions are rising. For many of us, it comes down to this: Respiration or recreation, and which should take priority?

Despite Minneapolis city regulations regarding burning wood -- what type of wood can be burned and the hours when burning is allowed -- none of the rules take into consideration the real impact on our health.

Every time you burn wood in the city, you are enjoying your outdoor fire at the expense of someone else's health. Wood smoke can affect everyone, but children under 18, especially infants, and people with heart disease and asthma or other lung diseases are most at risk.

Even if I close my windows, the smoke still gets inside. According to a recent study, indoor levels of particle pollution in a closed house were 70 percent of those outside when wood was being burned.

I'm convinced that most people don't know the dangers of wood smoke. They think of wood as natural and therefore safe.

They're mistaken. Wood smoke is made up of gases and fine particles, and those fine particles can remain in the air 48 hours after a fire dies out.

What makes wood smoke particularly dangerous is that its microscopic particles are too small to be filtered in the respiratory system, and they collect in the remote regions of the lungs -- the tiny sacs where oxygen enters the blood stream.

These particles cause structural and chemical changes deep within the lungs, aggravating asthma (a rising epidemic among children) and acute bronchitis, as well as increasing susceptibility to respiratory infections among children and adults.

Studies suggest that wood smoke is even more harmful than tobacco smoke, because it stays in the body longer and thus causes more damage.

I, too, miss the days when we could sit around a fire and feel good about it. But those days are over, at least in the city, where wood smoke impacts a whole community.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, numerous studies link wood smoke particle levels to increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits. Wood smoke is one of the biggest triggers for asthma, and asthma is serious.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, every day in America: 40,000 people miss work due to asthma; 30,000 have asthma attacks; 5,000 visit the emergency room; 1,000 are admitted to the hospital, and 11 die.

Asthmatics are not the only ones who suffer from wood smoke.

Another EPA study that focused on health impacts of particulate matter in the air found that for every 100 micrograms of particulate matter in a cubic meter of air, the risk of dying goes up 32 percent from emphysema; 19 percent from bronchitis and asthma; 12 percent from pneumonia, and 9 percent from cardiovascular diseases.

Recent studies have also shown that children who are exposed to wood smoke have a greater chance of developing chronic lung diseases later in life. According to Joel Schwartz, a researcher at Harvard, in an article published in Public Health Magazine, "Particle pollution is the most important contaminate in our air -- we know that when levels go up, people die."

We also know there is no safe level of particle pollution, so every outside fire has to potential to impact the health of those living nearby.

As summer approaches, local merchants, patio builders, landscapers and fireplace installers are promoting outdoor fireplaces and fire pits as the "new trend in outdoor entertaining," with no thought to the repercussions between neighbors or to community health.

Asthma isn't a choice. Recreational fires are. The Minneapolis City Council would do us all a great service by educating residents about particle pollution and by banning outdoor fireplaces and fire pits in the city.

Carol Dines is a writer and yoga teacher in Minneapolis.

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