Wood smoke warnings heat up 

Cozying up to a wood-fired hearth on a cold winter night can be irresistible for anyone, including small children. But it can be as bad for the lungs as secondhand cigarette smoke, according to lung experts with Breathe California of the Bay Area.

Wood smoke particles, some of the smallest pollutants around, can seep into the lungs so deep they can’t be coughed up, according to Terry Lee, a spokeswoman for Breathe California, formerly associated with the American Lung Association. The result is frequently permanent lung damage — a particular risk for those with asthma, the young or senior citizens, Lee said.

"Repeated studies have shown that [wood smoke] is super-damaging to lungs and lung health," Lee said.

The problem is caused by cold air that, because it is heavy, traps wood smoke pollutants close to the ground where people live and breathe, according to Karen Schkolnick, spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which monitors local air quality in the nine-county Bay Area.

Recognizing something had to be done after issuing more than two dozen Spare the Air Tonight warnings since Nov. 20, 2006 — far surpassing the 1991 high of 11 — the air district on Wednesday made reducing wood smoke a priority in 2007. The district issued its 25th Spare the Air advisory of the season Friday night.

The high number of warnings is primarily a result of more stringent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations adopted in December that cut in half the amount of miniscule particles — known as particulate matter — allowed in the air in a 24-hour period before an advisory must be issued, experts said. Wood-burning fireplaces and vehicle emissions are the primary dangers.

The stricter regulations have resulted in the highest number of warnings ever issued in the Bay Area. Such frequent violations of the EPA standards have forced the district to begin drawing up enforceable regulations for residential wood smoke for the first time, Schkolnick said.

Although citations aren’t likely to be handed out for more than a year, bans on burning certain fuels on days when air quality is bad and providing cash incentives for those who upgrade to cleaner burning fireplaces and pellet stoves are being considered, Schkolnick said.

Such regulations could give the district the ability to investigate and issue citations to residential violators, officials said.

San Mateo County supervisor and air district board member Jerry Hill said there was little choice but to move ahead with regulations. "We’re between a rock and a hard place. If we don’t do something then we remain out of compliance with the federal standard," Hill said.

Being out of compliance and failing to do something about it could jeopardize federal transportation funding, Hill said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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