Healthier air starts at home |

Healthier air starts at home

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …” Nothing captures the appeal of the winter holidays better than the warm glow of logs burning in a fireplace. For many people, the scent of wood smoke evokes happy memories, and it is a sure sign that winter has arrived in many communities.

But too much wood smoke in the air we breathe is harmful to health. That’s why new restrictions on wood fires recently have been imposed in Sacramento County this winter when air quality is predicted to be unhealthy.

No such restrictions have been proposed in El Dorado County, but the county’s air regulators are likewise concerned about the unhealthy effects of residential wood smoke in foothills communities and in South Lake Tahoe. They even are willing to issue rebates to residents for part of the cost of replacing old wood stoves and fireplaces with newer, cleaner equipment as a way to clear the winter air.

Why all the fuss about wood smoke?

Short answer: it’s a major part of our air-pollution problem during the winter. On cold winter days, when the air is stagnant and temperature inversions limit air movement, the smoke that escapes from your chimney into the outdoor environment is trapped close to the ground, in the breathing space of your family and neighbors.

Wood smoke is a complex mixture of gases and particulate matter, a brew that includes several known human carcinogens and other chemicals with toxic effects. With prolonged exposure, wood smoke can decrease lung function, increase the risk of infections, aggravate asthma, worsen heart disease and may cause cancer.

The particles in wood smoke are of special concern. They are so small that they cannot be filtered out by the nose and upper airways, so they settle in the lungs. There, they trigger structural damage and chemical changes, not unlike those seen in cigarette smokers.

Avoiding exposure to wood smoke on cold winter days is difficult in some local neighborhoods, even by staying indoors. The particles in wood smoke are so tiny that most of them easily re-enter the home and neighboring dwellings, seeping through closed windows and doors.

The only sure way to protect the public on winter days is to reduce wood-smoke emissions at their source. In July, the El Dorado County Air Quality Management District Board of Directors set aside $55,000 to pay county homeowners between $200 and $450 when they replace old, smoky wood stoves and fireplaces with EPA-certified devices. Details about the incentive program can be found at

Newer, EPA-certified equipment releases much less smoke than older models, and because these devices burn wood more efficiently, they also save money in the long run on fuel. Heaters that run on propane or natural gas are even less polluting than wood-burning appliances.

If you like wood fires, now may be the time to replace your old wood stove or fireplace. Your lungs, and those of your neighbors, will thank you.

– Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D, is the El Dorado County health officer. He can be reached at

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