SALT LAKE CITY — Just as smoking cigarettes in an enclosed public place is harmful and no longer legal, a group of physicians said burning wood or coal in a fireplace or stove is a practice that has come and should go — especially in regions where Utah struggles with air quality.
"It is long overdue that we consider putting wood smoke into the community airshed as inappropriate," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
The push comes just in time for the season when those cool fall nights make it tempting to light a fire in the fireplace to take off the chill — a move Moench said harms you and your neighbors.
"Wood smoke is an extremely toxic, public health hazard," he said, pointing to Environmental Protection Agency numbers that show lifetime exposure to wood smoke is 12 times greater than being exposed to the equivalent amount of secondhand smoke.
Moench is going to make the case against what he calls the "air pollution elephant in the room" Wednesday to the Utah Air Quality Board during its regular monthly meeting.
Advocates would like the board to endorse the pursuit of a law that would put a year-round ban on wood-burning and coal-burning home heating devices in Utah's "non-attainment" areas — Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties, as well as portions of Tooele, Box Elder and Cache counties.
"The idea that we are going to declare a green, yellow or a red day and play around with some voluntary cooperation with the effort isn't working," Moench said. "We have to rethink this, and the science is pretty clear."
Research shows that heating a home from a wood stove puts out the pollution equivalent of heating 90,000 homes via natural gas furnaces, he said, adding that burning a wood stove for one hour is the same as driving as much as 1,150 miles.
Because of the toxicity of the smoke and its ability to permeate nearby homes, Moench said the practice of burning wood or coal in fireplaces or stoves should be snuffed out — just like the backyard incineration of trash and operating a vehicle with excessive emissions.
"Routine wood burning should not be allowed for exactly the same philosophical, aesthetic and public health reasons as the prohibition of cigarette smoking in public venues, backyard trash incineration and excessive vehicle emissions," he said. "The smoke from wood stoves, boilers and fireplaces creeps onto adjacent property and into nearby homes, affecting the quality of life and the health of neighbors."
In his presentation, Moench will reiterate the findings of a study done by Kerry Kelly from the University of Utah. A chemical engineering researcher who specializes in air pollution, Kelly is associate director of the university's Program for Air Quality, Health and Society.
She also happens to be vice chairwoman of the Utah Air Quality Board, but is careful to stress her research is intended as informational — not as a public policy statement.
"I think it is a useful thing for individuals to know when they make the choice to burn wood," Kelly said. "I am thrilled that people are interested in the research and that it may spark a discussion."
Kelly used data measured by three state Division of Air Quality monitoring stations in Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties from 2007 to 2011. The Hawthorne station in Salt Lake City, for example, showed that, on average, wood smoke contributed to 38 percent of the PM2.5 problem during inversions.
"I was quite surprised that we saw so much of it," she said. "The main message that might be useful for people to hear is that it doesn't take too many people to burn wood to have a big effect."
The state operates a registry of people who have wood stoves or fire places as the only way to heat their homes, and they are exempt from state "no-burn" days. Both Kelly and Moench said there are groups exploring ways to make it economically feasible for that population to convert to electrical or natural gas heating systems.
As far as the rest of the population goes, Moench said the Wasatch Front's notoriously unhealthy inversion periods are a signal that the ambience of a wood-burning stove or fireplace is no longer a good enough reason to strike a match.
"What we are really trying to accomplish is to transform people's attitudes and get people thinking that this is inappropriate as secondhand smoke," he said.