NORTH SALT LAKE -- A group of Utah doctors want to see an end to wood burning -- all year.
Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said the science is solid that wood smoke is extremely toxic, even more than cigarette smoke.
"And it's as big a contributor to our air pollution as all our cars," he said. "We are not going to solve our air pollution problem without getting much stricter on prohibiting wood burning."
The group gave a presentation Wednesday afternoon at the Utah Air Quality monthly board meeting. Members are asking the board to endorse the idea of phasing out all non-essential wood burning in non-attainment counties.
As the Wasatch Front approaches the winter inversion season, the worst pollution of year will be arriving with it, the group stressed.
"Research shows that wood burning in stoves, fireplaces and grills accounts for over a third of our particulate pollution, as much as all our cars. If Utah is ever going to clean up our air, addressing this 'Air pollution elephant in the room' is a must," Moench said. "Allowing wood burning according to a green, yellow, red air designation is not solving the problem. We need the community to understand that wood burning is a public health hazard any time of the year and we simply need to phase it out, just like we did smoking in public places and for exactly the same reasons."
Dr. Ellie Brownstein, a UPHE board member agreed.
"Thankfully, we no longer allow smoking in public places. For the exact same reasons we should no longer allow wood burning in our public air shed. Wood smoke is simply too toxic."
Dr. Douglas Jones, an allergist at Rocky Mountain Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in Layton, was not at the meeting, but said he agrees that wood burning stoves are a significant part of the air quality and pollution problem in Utah.
"We consistently are among the worst in air quality. In a state that prides itself on health and is typically among the leaders in the country, it seems a bit contradictory that there are not stricter laws governing air quality," Jones said. "It is a tremendous health problem here. Not only does it pose a significant threat to those with lung disease, but it poses a threat to all when the inversion gets so severe."
In addition, Jones said, the pollution plays a role in the worsening allergy epidemic. Pollution is not an allergen itself, but when particles combine with pollen, people are more prone to being sensitized to the pollens.
"I often describe pollution to pollen like a performance enhancing drug is to athletes," Jones said. "Wood burning stoves are a major contributor to the problem."
BJ Hogge, owner of Hearth and Home Distributors of Utah, said he doesn't think the proposal is unreasonable. However, he said today's wood burning stoves are so high in efficiency that they burn 1.1 grams of fine particle emissions per hour. According to the EPA's website, the mandatory smoke emission limit for wood stoves is 7.5 grams per hour.
"We carry very high efficiency models such as Quadra-Fire that are approved by the EPA," Hogge said. "When these stoves burn, there's no visible emission other than the first five minutes of start up. They also burn exhaust gases multiple times before they reach the top of the chimney."
Hogge said the newer versions also require less firewood.
"The products differ drastically than the old open face fireplaces and steel wood stoves," he said. "To say we should get rid of them all is like saying we need to outlaw all vehicles because they all produce black smoke when they take off at the light, when in reality there are newer cars out there that are much more efficient and don't cause the same problems as the older models."
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are approximately 12 million wood stoves in homes today and 9 million of those are older, non EPA-certified stoves that are 50 percent less efficient than newer stoves. Long term exposure to these older models has been associated with premature death, asthma, chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and cancer.
Last week the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine said in a prepared statement that reducing exposure to toxic environmental agents is a critical area of intervention for their specialty. Patient exposure to toxic environmental chemicals and other stressors is ubiquitous and preconception and prenatal exposure to toxic environmental agents can have a profound and lasting effect on reproductive health across the life course.
"Prenatal exposure to certain chemicals has been documented to increase the risk of cancer in childhood," the statement reads. "We join leading scientists and other clinical practitioners in calling for timely action to identify and reduce exposure to toxic environmental agents while addressing the consequences of such exposure."