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Chestnuts Roasting By An Open Fire: Eco-Friendly Or Health Threat?

A Tacoma-Pierce County WA Task Force just sent its recommendations to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency about how to reduce soot in the air to meet EPA standards. The soot is created partly by diesel vehicles and industry, but the most (53%) is from wood burning stoves and fireplaces. I remember from my days in New York City the ongoing struggle over fireplaces and the particulate pollution they create. The concern has spread nationally too. As the New York Times reported last January, sales of wood stoves and fireplaces have dropped dramatically over the last decade. The Times attributes this drop at least in part to the growing ambivalence towards wood fires. But now that I'm in the Pacific Northwest, I find a different ethos about wood stoves and fireplaces. We feel good about burning wood; trees are abundant and so is firewood. We know instinctively that burning wood produces particulate pollution, we can see the smoke, but we also trust that the winter rains washes those particles away. Even some of our local experts see wood as a future fuel, a serious source of biomass energy. As University of Washington air-pollution researcher Michael Yost told KCTS 9, "We have a fuel that we can use which is relatively eco-friendly. It's a renewable resource. So there's a natural advantage to that biofuel use." But the realities and science of air quality question some of our long held assumptions about the wholesomeness of a fire. Yost explains, "…biofuels by and large across the world are much dirtier and have higher emissions. So we need to balance the use of these fuels versus the emissions they contribute. And probably starting on a local scale, because that’s where the problem starts."

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