I went woodsmoke sleuthing in West Marin County on a Burn Ban Day, December 18, 2011 because I got many letters from Marin residents, saying they're frustrated and sick when neighbors burn wood (sometimes chemically-treated) and air quality control authorities appear to do, well not enough enforcement for residents' needs.
It appears West Marin towns such as Woodacre and Forest Knolls have more wood-smoke problems than towns like San Rafael where it's less wet and cold. Novato, an area in the past I've received letters regarding wood-smoke violations, I was told improved.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) widely publicizes wood-burning bans on Spare The Air Days, and supposedly BAAQMD enforces these bans with hefty fines to violators.
Frustrated neighbors in West Marin County, California wrote they need more help, asking me to shine a brighter "light" on the wood-smoke problem.
So I took a walk on the smokey-side:
In West Marin on a burn ban day (SPARE THE AIR!), after only a couple of blocks of walking, I found 3 houses burning wood. Wafting smoke was so bad that despite feeling healthy and bouncy in my initial steps, a headache crept between my temples and I slowed to a--Get me indoors!--as I unwittingly inhaled gobs of fine particulate matter.
And it wasn't just smoke.
It was stinky, chemical-smelling, smoke. The stuff of potential migraines for those who tend toward headaches.
I searched online and learned BAAQMD issues a $400 fine for violations to burn bans, and has a zero tolerance for wood smoke on burn ban days. But according to neighbors who wrote me at Chasing Clean Air exacerbated, they felt unheard about their wood-smoke/health impacts plight. So if an inspector is/was enforcing in West Marin (I hesitate to write the neighborhood to protect those residents suffering health impacts and potential neighbors' scorn), the message didn't get out well enough.
The article I referenced online was from 2009, and we're in 2011. Has the response to air quality transgressions changed and if so why? Is enforcement uneven? A Novato woman used to suffer neighbor's burning on ban days. She told me that inspectors seemed to have done magic, or something, because this year air quality improved.
I believe BAAQMD does excellent work but according to neighbors, wood smoke regulation inspectors with the power to fine violators, come up short in West Marin.
I wonder to what degree BAAQMD uses citizen air quality sleuths in all neighborhoods to send information and photos, and enforces fines while simultaneously developing after-burners that will render smoke harmless. More later.
My wish by writing this piece is to inspire neighbors and regulators to care even more about the health of their neighbors, and do more.
I'm assuming more work is needed judging by the numbers of emails I receive from frustrated breathers.
Regulation and Accountability
Banking regulators allowed violators to slip through the cracks, and Bernie Madoff negatively impacted innocent people's bottom-line. Let's not allow air polluters to get away with impacting neighbors' health. If a woodburning neighbor needs a new heating source, neighbors and or the air regulation agency should help one another, not hurt one another.
From what I've been told, wood smoke regulation is mostly administered by neighbors, who send emails back and forth that go something like this:
Please don't burn, it's a burn ban day and your smoke is making me sick. I'm allowed, I'm exempt (whether or not true), I'm only burning a little, I'm cold and my place is wet, tough luck, I'm burning. Cough. Headache. Doctor appointment. Can we afford to sell the house? Who'd buy if they knew the smoke situation?
If you live in Marin and have neighbors burning wood despite a ban, you must report violations to BAAQMD.
Phone: (415) 749-5000
Fax: (415) 928-8560
Air Quality/Burn Days:
(800) HELP AIR
Report Smoking Vehicles:
Get together with your neighbors to form a louder voice. Don't go it alone. You might contact Families for Clean Air.
Wood Smoke Health Impacts
Unfortunately, heat vs health can be an unpleasant to volitile issue. Short and long term health impacts from smoke inhalation go from headaches to respiratory and circulatory illnesses to cancer. Read more health impacts here.
The day I was in West Marin, a distraught neighbor already suffering from neighbors' wafting smoke, told me about a spiritual congregation leader who insisted on going ahead with a sweat lodge despite a burn ban in effect. Apparently, the thinking went their smoke didn't count.
It all counts.
People are suffering asthma, headaches, and economically. What's the sensitive person supposed to do? At minimum they buy air purifiers for every room, and seal the windows, and take no more neighborhood walks. And if they do walk, they consider a breathing mask. And at most, they move.
Dennis Grahn, a Stanford professor, developed an after-burner for wood burning stoves that gets rid of the fine particulates that damage lungs and air. I wish BAAQMD would work with Mr. Grahn, financing and enforcing his afterburner's use.
If indeed it's effective, Marin residents would get heat without negative health impacts, including the silent battle that goes on between neighbors.
I hope all neighbors suffering smoke on Burn Ban days continue to speak up! until enforcement is the norm and new technologies like Dr. Grahn's after-burner take hold.
And if you're suffering from wood-smoke, consider an air filtration system for your house, and additional air purifiers for rooms.
FYI, according to the EPA, in cold areas, wood-smoke accounts for as much as 80% of air pollution. It's a big issue, please don't ignore.
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