Berkeley could be in for a red hot debate over the future of the fireplace.
Four years after the City Council outlawed high-polluting wood stoves and fireplace inserts in restaurants and all new construction, the Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC) is considering an ordinance that could make the use of some fireplaces illegal.
“The old law didn’t do anything to combat air pollution,” said LA Wood, a CEAC Commissioner and the driving force behind the move to regulate fireplaces in the city.
He wants the commission to hold a public hearing on the issue by March and ultimately recommend that the council ban the use of all open fireplaces and allow wood burning only in fireplaces that have stoves or inserts certified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Berkeley Hazardous Materials Supervisor Nabil Al-Hadithy said that strict fireplace guidelines could be appropriate in cases when a chimney was positioned to blow smoke near a neighbor’s windows, but was less convinced that Berkeley needed to outlaw all non EPA-compliant fireplaces.
“It seems a little bit difficult to justify it if the air quality readings don’t justify it,” he said.
If the council adopts Wood’s proposal, Berkeley would join Sebastopol, Santa Rosa and Marin County as Bay Area jurisdictions that restrict fireplace use to follow EPA guidelines. The other jurisdictions have outlawed non-EPA-approved inserts or stoves, but still permit wood burning in open fireplaces.
Considered by many a symbol of rustic comfort, the fireplace, although no longer a primary source for home heating, remains one of the region’s prime winter-time polluters. In the Bay Area, wood burning from fireplaces and other sources accounts for one-third of dioxin, a toxic compound, and contains cancer-causing substances such as benzene and formaldehyde, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD).
Wood smoke also produces inhalable particulate matter—tiny particles that can measure less than one micron in diameter (one human hair has a diameter of between 40 and 120 microns) and can become lodged in the lungs contributing to lung diseases and cancer.
Sufferers from asthma, emphysema and heart disease are more prone to particulate air pollution. Children and elderly people are especially vulnerable, according to the district.
During winter months, wood burning accounts for roughly 30 percent of PM 2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns) in the air, second only to auto exhaust, said David Fairley, a BAAQMD statistician.
Winter is the season for weather patterns that trap pollutants. High pressure systems that sit stationary during colder months create a layer of warm air that blocks colder air near the ground, preventing particulate matter from escaping until wind and rain arrive. Berkeley’s location directly across from the Golden Gate means that the city is less likely than valleys to experience the stagnant weather patterns that trap pollutants.
The air district doesn’t have monitors within Berkeley city limits, but nearby readings show the East Bay enjoys relatively clean air year round. Since 2002, Downtown Oakland has had an average PM 2.5 reading of 16 microns per cubic meter—far lower than the federal pollution threshold of 150 and the state threshold of 50.
However, residents living beside prolific woodburners often breath dirtier air.
“In places like the East Bay where regional air quality is generally good, wood smoke tends to be a highly localized problem,” said Michael Lipsett, public health physician with the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. He said he has received numerous complaints about wood burning from residents in the East Bay hills.
“It can be just one house or one block that gets the brunt of it,” he said.
Aftim Saba, a North Berkeley resident, said his family has suffered from being directly adjacent to a neighbor’s chimney. The neighbor’s constant wood fires blew smoke directly into his home, he said, until last year when he hired a private inspector who found that the neighbor had built the fireplace without a city permit.
“We were like prisoners in our own house; we couldn’t open any windows from November through April,” said Saba, adding that he and his children suffered respiratory illnesses from exposure to the smoke.
Other jurisdictions have tried to cut down on wood smoke without requiring that residents switch to hi-tech fireplaces.
In the San Joaquin Valley, which is more prone to weather patterns that trap particulate matter, the regional air board last year enacted regulations instituting no-burn days when particulate matter readings surpassed EPA thresholds. It also limited the number of fireplaces in new development lots and required home buyers to upgrade or disable their fireplaces.
So far this winter, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has called three no-burn days, said Kelly Malay, the board’s senior education representative.
In the Seattle area, since 1989, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has had the authority to call a burn ban whenever the level of particulate matter hits 60 microns per cubic meter. Amy Fowler, an air resource specialist for the board, said it calls burn bans about once a year.
Around Seattle, average air visibility has improved from 49 miles to 69 miles since 1989—a 40 percent increase that air agency spokesperson Mike Schultz said was partially due to the no-burn laws.
Closer to home, Eric Stevenson, Air Monitoring Manager for the Bay Area air board said that particulate matter readings appeared to have dropped in Santa Rosa since the city required EPA-certified wood stoves and fireplace inserts in 2002.
While a standard fire place emits between 50 to 75 micrograms of particulate mater, EPA-certified stoves and inserts emit an average of about four micrograms.
Depending on the model, Potter said, a clean burning fireplace costs about $2,500 to buy and install. The cleanest and most popular of the EPA-certified devices is a gas-powered imitation log insert.
Santa Rosa is the only Bay Area city whose ban on wood has taken effect, and the city has not actively enforced the law, said City Planner Joel Galbraith.
Commissioner Wood said he would like to see Berkeley’s building inspection division enforce a ban.
While Santa Rosa hasn’t experienced much opposition to its law, Berkeley residents opposed a ban on non-compliant inserts and stoves when the council last considered regulating fireplaces three years ago.
“I can’t see them passing it,” said Elmer Grossman, a retired physician and a former CEAC member who helped draft the city’s current ordinance. “Look at the last election. You couldn’t get voters to tax themselves for basic services, they’re not going to pay $1,000 to upgrade their fireplace.”