Where There's Smoke | News

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Where There's Smoke

BANGOR, Maine (NEWS CENTER)  Look down any city street or country road in Maine this time of year and you can see wisps of smoke billowing from chimneys. Generations of Mainers have been using wood stoves to heat their homes, but it's what is in that smoke that worries Ernie Grolimund.  Grolimund is a retired civil engineer who is tirelessly researching the impacts of wood smoke. He has pages and pages of documents and photos from the websites of government agencices and activist groups. 

"It has to be investigated it has to be researched if found to be true it has to be stopped and then if it's a big public health problem like tobacco smoke then it has to be prevented and none of that is being done," Grolimund said.

He lives in Waterville, in a home he says has been inundated by wood smoke from his neighbors. He has sealed his windows and purchased an air purifier.

"My own daughter, had an asthma attack after about two or three months of it. I shut off the windows and everything, she had an asthma attack." 

According to the American Lung Association he does have reason for concern if he's breathing wood smoke.

"Anytime you're burning anything you're causing pollution. one of the things about wood smoke is it is a toxic pollutant that you want to avoid. And not dissimiliar for cigarette smoke, possibly even more toxic than cigarette smoke," Explained Ed Miller, the Senior Vice President of Public Policy for the American Lung Association of the Northeast.

While Miller agrees with Grolimund about the potential health threats, He points out that there's been a lot of progress made so far to create newer efficient wood stoves, and reduce pollution from wood smoke.

"There's really no safe level, but we need to keep warm it's not like secondhand cigarette smoke where it has no useful purpose.  Wood burning keeps people warm, driving diesel vehicles moves goods and services so you can't just say stop them we've got to continuously improve them and make them more efficient," he said.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protections Air Quality Bureau is watching pollution levels at fifteen air monitoring sites across the state in communities such as Portland, Bangor, Lewiston, Augusta, Madawaska, and Rumford, to name a few.  Filters hooked to computers measure the particles in smoke called particulate matter or pm 2.5. Those are the tiny particles that the EPA has determined can cause health problems if they get into your lungs. Andy Johnson is the DEP's Air Quality Coordinator.  He has been with the DEP Air Quality Bureau for more than 30 years. He says overall, the numbers show there's actually less pollution today from particulate matter due to increased regulations and better technology.

"All of the long term trend sites that we have that measure pm, we have seen a steady decline.  The concentrations have been coming down over the years," explained Johnson.

But the monitors are in fixed locations, and therefore the DEP doesn't doubt that there could be homeowners like Grolimund in specific areas who are adversely impacted by wood smoke, particularly in valley areas where smoke can become trapped near the ground. 

"Because we can't monitor everywhere all the time that's not to say that there might not be isolated pockets of areas where there's concentrated wood stove use, that they're not operated properly, there could be a problem, an air quality problem for people who live nearby, but overall in our major populated areas we're not seeing violatons we are in attainment for our pm standards." 

While Grolimund is among a group of people advocating for elimination of cord wood burning altogether, there are also those who advocate for improving technology, phasing out older dirtier equipment, enforcing laws and educating the public.

At Evergreen Home and Hearth in Brewer, Jim Rockett says there definately increased interest from people who want to burn cord wood.  He says cost is the number one consideration, but there are those interested in investing in renewable power.

For those heating with oil right now, Rockett says a wood stove will pay for itself, in many cases, in just a few years.  All new stoves by law must be EPA certified, and produce far less smoke and pollution than stoves just a few decades ago. From about 50 grams of particle pollution an hour to no more than 7.5 grams per hour for non-catalytic stoves and no more than 4.1 grams an hour for catalytic stoves. 

"If you look around I don't have one that emits more than 4 grams an hour and some of them as low as 1 gram an hour," explained Rockett.

The newer stoves have secondary air systems inside of them that ignite the smoke in the fire chamber, so less smoke goes up the chimney.  

"You can see it burning it looks like aurora borealis right inside your stove its really pretty cool."  

Even with the new features EPA certifed wood stoves still emit more pollution than wood pellet stoves, and oil and natural gas heating systems, in the case of natural gas, about 100 times more. 

Rockett, and many other supporters of wood stoves argue that you need to look at the big picture when talking about this.  

"When you look at the complete process, getting the natural gas out of the ground, transporting it, building pipelines, getting it to the house, and look at the carbon footprint of that versus the bar oil for the chainsaw and the pickup truck I don't buy that argument," Rockett said. 

One person who agrees that newer wood stoves and pellet stoves will go a long way to reducing wood smoke pollution is Ed Miller of the American Lung Association.

 "The Lung Association is not anti-wood burning.  We realize you need to keep your home warm and it's not healthy for you to be cold or trading off your child's asthma medication for fuel oil we get it we understand that," he said.  "One of the concerns that we have is, there's a very large difference between the old wood stoves, the old technology that existed and the newer wood stoves and the newer wood stoves which burn much much more cleanly."

Miller says a critical insights survey that the ALA conducted in 2008 showed that 15 percent of Mainers heated with wood as their primary heating source and that 25 percent of Mainers used it as a supplemental source.   However, of those that used wood stoves as their primary wood stove, more than half were using stoves built before 1998.  And one third of those using woodstoves for supplemental heat used stoves more than 20 years old. 

That's why Miller says the American Lung Association has been involved in buyback programs for old stoves in other states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  In those states companies that were fined by the EPA for air quality violations would put the money they would pay for a fine into a fund to buyback old wood stoves.

"It's on a first come first served basis and they're eligible for getting a thousand dollars or 1500 dollars towards a new wood stove or pellet burning stove on the provision that they take their old non-EPA certified stove, that's working now and they recycle it,"  Miller explained.  He said that program brought in %$250 thousand dollars in sales to wood stove dealers in the region.  

Miller says the American Lung Association would like to see a similar program in Maine, but not everyone out there is ready to embrace burning of cord wood, no matter the source.

Ernie Grolimund is of the belief that any wood smoke you can see or smell is harming you and he cites data he's compiled from a variety of sources.

"It's a great big huge problem where old traditions are clashing with new science that comes from the surgeon general and 40 years of research into tobacco smoke where they say there's no safe level of tobacco smoke and the EPA is saying wood smoke is 12 times more carcinogenic."

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection Air Quality Bureau received 36 complaints from people about wood smoke in 2012 that they investigated.  

"It's always tough it's like chasing odors because by the time you call and by the time we get there you've missed it," explained  Andy Johnson. He admits these cases are hard to prove especially with limited resources. That's why DEP tries to work with the party accused of creating the smoke to come up with a solution.   In rare cases, they have used cameras that have been set up on timers to try and catch a violator.

"And we will review that over a time period and ask the person who's impacted to keep a log. Its tough to do."  

For the DEP, It's far easier to educate the public about the benefit of EPA certified stoves, pellet stoves, best burning practices, and proper maintenance of stoves and chimneys. That may not be enough to quiet all critics or satifsy all health concerns but one thing all sides can agree upon, its at least a step in the right direction.