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Wood-burning stoves create quandary

By Nerissa Pacio Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday September 09, 2000

Wood-burning stove business representatives, pediatricians and public health officials were among those speaking out at a public hearing on restricting the use of wood-burning fireplaces held Thursday night by the city’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission. 

The commission took no action and will consider the public’s oral and written opinions before making a recommendation to City Council next month. Comments can be sent to the commission by Sept. 15. 

The commission has proposed 10 possible actions, from setting up a complaint hot line and sending out “smoke police” to enforce emission limits, to prohibiting the use of wood burn ing devices on “Spare-the-Air” days. Other proposals include the replacement of wood stoves with EPA-approved stoves, or a formal two-year study of the air to help the public make a more informed decision. 

“I’ve worked nearly half my life in third-world countries,” said Dr. Davida Coady, a pediatrician and Berkeley resident. “So, I’m very aware of the health hazards smoke causes to children who are directly exposed to cooking fires in the kitchen. And in my own home in the winter, when I don’t get home early enough to close the windows, smoke from neighboring chimneys comes in, and I get sinus headaches so bad that I’ve had to sleep in other people’s places.” 

Many residents such as Coady urged the commission to consider their personal testimonies as proof that wood burning should be banned.  

Bay Area communities that have already placed restrictions on wood-burning stoves include the cities of San Jose, Palo Alto, Petaluma, Dublin and Los Gatos.  

Though there has been talk in Berkeley for a year of requiring conversion of wood-burning fireplaces when homes are sold, the health hazards of wood burning raised even greater concern when the commission recently released a report compiling results of studies conducted over the last twenty years. 

Although the dangers are usually associated with automobile and factory pollution, the report cited a 1989-1996 study by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District that stated “between 20 and 50 percent of air polluting particulate matter comes from home fireplaces and wood stoves.” 

Particulates can cause aggravated asthma and other increased respiratory problems and possible premature death due to heart rate interference. They are also known to contain certain cancer-causing chemicals, the commission report said. 

Dr. Anthony D.A. Hansen, an expert on smoke particles from Magee Scientific and a manufacturer of smoke-measuring instruments, said air particulates released by wood burners are tiny, hard particles, which are considered toxic air contaminants. However, the contaminants can not be consistently measured in the area due to variable winds from the bay that blow smoke away, he said. 

“It’s difficult to pinpoint the amount of smoke in Berkeley due to our location. If the air is stagnant, as in the spring or fall, the air will be hazy due to the smoke settling,” Hansen said. “But if the wind is blowing, the air will be much clearer. Air quality is diversely proportional to wind speed so this is a regional issue, not a local one.” 

People in the fireplace business also argued that the problem is regional and that converting wood stoves and fireplaces in Berkeley is not the final answer. 

Michael Gersick represents California Hearths and Homes, a Sacramento-based organization of fireplace designers. He told the commission that people should be educated to use wood stoves responsibly. He said that 30 percent of total emissions are actually produced during the kindling phase and do not come from the smoke itself. 

Gersick said his organization has a local interest in Berkeley because whenever regulations are being made by organizations in different locales, they “want to be sure to offer their expertise and make sure regulations adapted are fair and reasonable.” 

Others in the hearth industry, such as Karen Fenton of the Northern California-Nevada Hearth Products Association and Energy Unlimited in Richmond, said that the hearth industry has responded responsibly to health issues and that possible and potential damage to their businesses should be considered. 

“The hearth industry, of which I have been a member for the last 25 years, responded quickly and responsibly to the research and the laws that address wood smoke,” Fenton said. “We have done so because this is our livelihood. Not to be able to sell, service, and use hearth products, such as fireplaces, heaters, and the chimneys would cause us severe economic hardship.” 

The widely varying opinions and clashing data cited by many attendees from different groups revealed the need for more research and public education about the issue, said Elmer Grossman, a retired pediatrician and a member of the commission. 

“We are all students of this and no one really knows what to do,” he said. “Even the commission is in disagreement about the proposals and we’d like to hear what the public has to say so we can try and figure out how to solve this problem together.” 

Comments on wood-burning fireplaces and stoves can be sent to the CEAC at 2118 Milvia, Berkeley, 94704.