written by: Glen Warchol & Susan Lacke
Wood-fired home heating and restaurant wood ovens are among the most dangerous polluters in the valley, even though only several hundred homes are heated by wood and even fewer restaurants have wood ovens.
“If you live next to a home or restaurant with a wood-burning fireplace, your health is screwed,” says Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE). “You might as well live in Beijing.”
A 2013 study conducted by University of Utah researchers found wood burning from homes and restaurants in the Wasatch valley contributed as much fine-particulate PM2.5, the most toxic form of pollution, as all cars in the region. Wood smoke stagnates in the immediate area where it’s emitted, meaning that the houses near a wood-burning home or restaurant can experience up to 100 times more pollution than what is measured at an air-quality monitoring station a few miles away.
Particulates in wood smoke are particularly toxic due to their small size, which allows them to stay suspended in the atmosphere for longer than other pollutants. They can also seep easily into any home, no matter how tightly sealed. Once inhaled, they are more likely to reach the smaller air sacs in the lungs, which allows easy access to the bloodstream. These tiny particles have noxious chemicals attached to them, including benzene, dioxins and heavy metals like lead and mercury.
Burning wood is banned on the Wasatch Front during inversions, but research from the Utah Division of Air Quality suggests few Utahns abide by this rule. Previous legislative attempts to ban word-burning appliances from homes have failed. Still there is hope—Summit County recently banned fireplaces in new home and business construction, and several health groups, including UPHE, are pushing for strict enforcement of no-burn days and a gradual phase-out of restaurants allowed to burn wood in Salt Lake County.
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