One big source of air pollution -- as deadly as vehicle exhaust, and with many of the same toxicants as cigarette smoke -- is wood smoke.
The Star Tribune's recent feature on the joys of back-yard wood burning ("All fired up," Oct. 24) was so well-written and enticing that it no doubt caused sales of wood-burning equipment to skyrocket. Yet it did not address the perils of wood smoke. Wood smoke is more than a nuisance -- it is a health hazard.
Minnesota's antismoking ordinance allows people to go to bars and restaurants and avoid smoke, because tobacco smoke is a proven killer. Yet because we still allow recreational wood burning in the city, where homes are close together on small lots, it has become a serious livability problem. All citizens are forced to breathe outdoor air that smells of smoke in many neighborhoods, night and day, in all seasons.
There is so much smoke, either faint or heavy, that many hardly notice it anymore. But wood smoke is there, heavy in most neighborhoods at night or around our many wood-fired restaurants, if you stop to notice.
How did this happen in a city such as Minneapolis, which has long been focused on improving air quality for the health of its citizens?
Wood smoke comprises fine particulates, many of which are carcinogenic, such as benzene, toluene, formaldehyde and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. It is far more concentrated than cigarette smoke and travels much farther, spreading soot and fine particulates directly into our air and our lungs. It also invades our water and food supply with persistent organic compounds that do not break down but remain for years, causing a host of health problems in frogs, bluegills and mammals -- including humans.
Everyone is at risk from wood-smoke exposure. But children of all ages, the elderly, and anyone with asthma, allergies, or heart disease are in the highest-risk categories.
The American Lung Association states that a majority of asthmatics cite smoke of all kinds as a trigger for asthma attacks. Asthma is epidemic in children, and it is life-threatening. Wood smoke is even implicated in sudden infant death syndrome. Are we OK with this? Aren't these facts reason enough to stop recreational wood burning?
Why, then, do people continue to burn? First, because they don't know how harmful it is. Second, because it is strongly promoted by the hearth and home industry. And third, because burning wood is an addiction.
I cannot be outside at all when wood smoke is in the air, because I have a "reactive airways" condition affected by it. I ache for clean air outdoors in a world where nature often is our only respite. Bad air is forcing many others I know inside when, as city taxpayers, we have a right to be outside breathing clean air.
We must urge our City Council members to ban recreational wood burning -- especially at a time when cities are looking for ways to reduce pollution to save lives and receive federal funding by being in compliance with air-quality standards. Many feel that our air-quality standards are not high enough. If air quality were measured near where people actually breathe it, when neighbors are burning, the results would be off the charts.
I look to the Star Tribune and to all citizens to start building public awareness of the hazards of wood smoke.
Julie Mellum is a Realtor and president of Take Back the Air, a Minneapolis group that works to address pollution at the neighborhood level.