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January, 2007


Moo Town News
by Judy Borello

What Next?
It's hard enough to be concerned about global warming, the end of the world according to Revelations on the Apocalypse, and nuclear war - now we have to worry about the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.
Take, for instance, the commercial we see on television, showing us that the air inside our homes is worse than the air outside except when there is a fire or a nuclear explosion outside (the show doesn't tell us which one to be most worried about). And, oh, those nasty contrails, especially from planes flying at night!

What about the fact that bottled water costs more than the orange juice sitting beside it in a vending machine? Now they say that some bottled water is worse for you than the regular water you get from the tap (with all the chlorine in it)!

Then there's the food supply: some of our milk has hormones; some of our chickens have arsenic; our fish has mercury stored in the flesh; and now our lettuce and other vegetables are contaminated too!

Even with organic products, which offer less risk but more expense, the food must often go to processing plants, or be touched by "food handlers" who may not wash their hands.

So what else? Well, read this article that a friend sent me the other day when the weather was in the low 20s at night and one had nothing but a fireplace to keep themselves warm:

Is there any sight more comforting on a cold winter evening than a roaring fireplace? According to thousands of recent scientific studies, we should be anything but comforted: wood smoke, we now know, is hazardous to our health.

Studies have now linked particle pollution with a host of health problems that include asthma attacks, diminished lung function, respiratory ailments, heart attacks and stroke. While particle pollution affects everyone, it is particularly dangerous for children - whose lungs are still developing - and can cause bronchitis, increases in respiratory infections and impaired lung development.

These are just a few of the reasons the US Environmental Protection Agency now considers fine particle pollution its "most pressing air quality problem." If you're skeptical that smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves could actually be a significant source of air pollution, consider this: according to the California Air Resources Board, residential wood burning is the single biggest contributor to winter particle pollution in the bay Area, contributing more particle pollution in our air than automobiles, diesel vehicles or industry. Last December, the air quality in the bay Area exceeded the recently enacted EPA particle pollution standard on one out of every three days, largely due to wood burning.

It would be bad enough if the story ended here, but it doesn't. Wood smoke also contains toxic and carcinogenic substances that include benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and dioxin - one of the most toxic substances on earth. According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management Agency, one third of the total amount of dioxin in the Bay Area comes from wood burning.

It may seem hard to believe that something so familiar could actually be harmful to our health. But just watch a movie from the 1940s, and you'll realize that cigarette smoking was also once considered harmless, and just as ubiquitous as wood burning is today. The EPA estimates that the cancer risk from wood smoke may be 12 times greater than from an equal amount of tobacco smoke.

The hazardous particles from wood smoke are so tiny that they can easily infiltrate homes. Every winter, local offices of the American Lung Assoc. Receive phone calls from distraught families suffering from health problems caused by wood burning. Often they have young children with asthma who are literally unable to breathe in their own homes. Some of these families have had to resort to selling their houses and moving to areas with less wood smoke pollution.

Fortunately, there are easily available solutions. Gas fireplaces now so convincingly imitate their log burning brethren that it is difficult to tell them apart - and gas is far more convenient and cleaner burning. Gas burning woodstoves can b e inserted into fireplaces and put out a small fraction of the particle pollution of those that burn wood. Electric models offer amazing realism. If gas is not an option, pellet stoves deliver high overall efficiency, and burn relatively cleanly. And with improved woodstove combustion technologies, some newer stoves have certified emissions as low as pellet stoves.

The American Lung Assoc. of California is currently working with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to promote the cleanest burning options and to enact effective measures to protect the public from wood smoke pollution. The health of our community depends on it.

But the most important change we can make is in our collective attitude towards wood burning. This will be difficult, since it has been ingrained in human behavior ever since our ancestors first gathered around a fire in a dark cave.

The first step is for us to stop associating that roaring fire with romance and ambiance. And start linking it with an asthmatic child reaching desperately for his or her inhaler.

So what do we do? West Marinites are very environmentally savvy, but the problems are overwhelming us. We could just roll up in a fetal position, suck our thumbs, live in denial, or cope with our own man-made existence the best way we know how. We need to accept the challenges and keep a positive attitude while trying to fix things. And when all else fails, keep your sense of humor, your best friend.

PS If all else still fails, hug your dog and eat a big bowl of ice cream. Forget the fleas and the fat because at some point you need to say "who cares." HAPPY NEW YEAR.

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