Roasting by an Open Fire: Eco-friendly or Health Threat?

Dec 23, 2011 11:00 AM ET

As previously seen on the CSRHUB blog and Triple Pundit.

By Carol Pierson Holding

A Tacoma-Pierce County WA Task Force just sent its recommendations to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency about how to reduce soot in the air to meet EPA standards. The soot is created partly by diesel vehicles and industry, but the most (53%) is from wood burning stoves and fireplaces. 

I remember from my days in New York City the ongoing struggle over fireplaces and the particulate pollution they create. The concern has spread nationally too. As the New York Times reported last January, sales of wood stoves and fireplaces have dropped dramatically over the last decade. The Times attributes this drop at least in part to the growing ambivalence towards wood fires.   But now that I’m in the Pacific Northwest, I find a different ethos about wood stoves and fireplaces.  We feel good about burning wood; trees are abundant and so is firewood. We know instinctively that burning wood produces particulate pollution, we can see the smoke, but we also trust that the winter rains washes those particles away.  Even some of our local experts see wood as a future fuel, a serious source of biomass energy. As University of Washington air-pollution researcher Michael Yost told KCTS 9, “We have a fuel that we can use which is relatively eco-friendly. It’s a renewable resource. So there’s a natural advantage to that biofuel use.”   But the realities and science of air quality question some of our long held assumptions about the wholesomeness of a fire. Yost explains, “…biofuels by and large across the world are much dirtier and have higher emissions. So we need to balance the use of these fuels versus the emissions they contribute. And probably starting on a local scale, because that’s where the problem starts.”   Seattle has not only experienced wood burning pollution but adopted curbs on residential wood burning. A 1985 smog problem so severe that the airport had to be closed was linked to residential wood stoves. Since then, wood smoke in the Seattle area has been slashed by three-quarters or more, said Jim Nolan, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.  Burn bans that are announced and enforced have “cleared the air.”   Tacoma, a sister city to the south, continues to suffer in winter under sunny, cold conditions when atmospheric inversion traps the pollution close to the ground. Under these conditions, Tacoma often fails to meet the federal health standard for particulate pollution. Though levels of soot in Tacoma have stayed relatively constant since 2002, the EPA’s clean air standards have changed to address a wider range of health concerns. These new standards push the city out of compliance and require remedy.     Continue reading and comment on the original article on CSRHUB here.   Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.
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