Is wood smoke a neighborhood threat?

By Scott Carlson

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the District 12 Community Council’s Environment Committee has been discussing how a largely overlooked issue could be further exacerbating the coronavirus crisis: neighborhood wood smoke.

“Frequent wood burning is taking place in our neighborhood and across the city and state,” said Lisa Habeck, a member of the St. Anthony Park District 12 Environment Committee. Wood smoke also has been a recent topic in city newsletters in Falcon Heights and Lauderdale.

“A densely populated urban setting is a risky place to satisfy a desire for nostalgia from the sound and smell of a crackling fire when climate change and COVID-19, a virus greatly affecting the lungs, are becoming more and more concerning,” Habeck contended.

She and Committee Co-Chairman Michael Russelle said a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency report reveals more than a half-million households in the metro area burn wood with about 40 percent of that wood burned in outdoor recreational fires and much of the rest burned in fireplaces for home heating.

And that’s a problem because wood smoke is filled with small, potentially health injuring particles, many containing the same toxic chemical substances found in tobacco smoke, they said.

“The problem is that one family’s enjoyment is another’s health hazard,” Habeck and Russelle said in an email to the Bugle. They asserted that residents in much of the Bugle’s readership area have above average risk to air pollution, according to the interactive maps of the Minnesota PCA website.

Habeck and Russelle said they hope that their committee’s air quality conversations will raise awareness about the problems with wood smoke and encourage people to be responsible about wood burning.

So, what can be done? Habeck and Russelle offer these suggestions:

• “Learn how to build a fire that gets hot quickly and put it out quickly, so it does not smolder. Avoid burning anything but seasoned, dry wood.

• Avoid burning when air quality already is poor, when there are temperature inversions or late at night when the air is still. For daily information on air quality, check out these smartphone apps (Android: Minnesota Air Quality; iPhone: Minnesota Air ) and the MPCA online site https://www.pca.state.mn.us/air/current-air-quality.

• Upgrade your fireplace with a high efficiency wood stove. That will increase its ability to heat your home and greatly reduce harmful emissions as well as the amount of wood that you need to burn. The Wood Smoke Team of Clean Air Minnesota says, “Swapping out just one old, outdated wood stove for a new, more energy efficient model is the pollution reduction equivalent of removing over 700 cars from the road per year.” (bit.ly/WoodSmokeTeam).

• Talk with your neighbors who may be affected by smoke from your fireplace or backyard burn. If they have concerns, listen and consider them as you make decisions to burn or not to burn, to upgrade to a good wood stove or to wait for that outdoor fire until you’re at the cabin.”

Scott Carlson is Bugle managing editor.

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