To Board of Health Members in Massachusetts,
I first began complaining to health officials about wood smoke from
residential wood burning in January 1999 when my neighbors who burn
wood were unwilling to respond to my concerns about the wood smoke
that I was being exposed to. Smoke was coming into my home, onto
my property and into the air in my neighborhood, often forcing me
back into my house because the wall of smoke was so thick. One neighbor
told me I should move; another put out a no trespassing order on
me; the third agreed to only burn wood, not trash, in his stove.
All three of these neighbors are within 150 feet of my house and
I am downwind of all of them. All were confident that they were
perfectly within their rights and acted as though there was nothing
I could do about the fact that their wood burning was disturbing
I called the Department of Environmental Protection, the Environmental
Protection Agency and the Department of Public Health. I also spoke
with people at the BOH in Northampton, where there are wood smoke
regulations, and read extensively about the laws governing Boards
of Health in Massachusetts. Various people at DEP were quite sympathetic,
and agreed with me that wood smoke is air pollution. But those I
talked with have stated that there is no intention at this time
for DEP to regulate wood burning, even though it is regulated in
other states and municipalities. I concluded that the only help
for someone in my situation was through the BOH, which has statutory
authority to abate nuisances and regulate matters affecting public
health including air pollution.
When I looked into the health effects of wood smoke I was surprised
at the volume of information that was available. I learned that
an average wood stove produces 500 times as much particulate air
pollution as a well-tuned oil burner per hour, and 1000 times more
than a gas burner. Wood smoke contains dioxin, a well known carcinogen.
Wood ash from wood stoves in New England is often radioactive because
above-ground nuclear testing that took place 50 years ago deposited
radiation in this part of the country. The EPA estimates that at
similar exposures, wood smoke is about 12 times as carcinogenic
as secondhand tobacco smoke, and that the free radicals from cigarette
smoke remain in a person's system for 30 seconds, while those from
wood smoke act for 20 minutes. Toxicology and epidemiological studies
overwhelmingly conclude that wood smoke is harmful to people's health,
especially in sensitive populations such as infants, children, the
elderly, and those with existing heart or lung problems.
In the presence of wood smoke, I have experienced chest pain and
tightness, chronic sinus infections and other symptoms. These are
average, predictable responses as reported in the literature. When
I am not being exposed to wood smoke, I don't have these health
problems. However, when I reported my concerns to the Buckland BOH,
it refused to take any action to help me. My understanding of the
BOH's reasoning in refusing to address this problem is that, first
of all, wood smoke does not harm anyone's health except for mine.
They believe that asking people to curtail their wood burning is
unfair, even outrageous, because wood burning is a necessity and
a way of life. They are afraid that challenging the practice of
residential wood burning would interfere with people's privacy rights.
Some people, the BOH believes, have no choice but to harvest wood
from their property to heat their homes. It would be unfair to ask
people in one neighborhood, such as a densely populated area, to
curtail burning, while allowing others to continue to burn. The
BOH's arguments focus on the supposed environmental, political and
financial advantages to heating with wood. But when a Board of Health
does not recognize wood smoke as a health hazard, it cannot fulfill
its function of protecting the public's health.
I cannot remember anyone burning wood in the town of Greenfield
where I lived for the first 19 years of my life. Maybe wood burning
is a "way of life," but ways of life come and go; air
pollution is air pollution regardless of its source. I have not
found anything to suggest that wood smoke is exempted from the nuisance
law. It is my understanding that the open burning law is also predicated
on the idea that wood smoke is a health hazard. When my BOH refuses
to consider wood smoke a nuisance and/or a health hazard, instead
choosing to protect my neighbor's "right" to burn, the
BOH fails to consider the impact that these activities have on the
rights of others.
The practical outcome for me of the BOH's refusal to tackle the
wood smoke problem has included the necessity of leaving my house
completely for two winters because the smoke inside my house was
so severe that I feared for my health and safety. Now I spend hundreds
of dollars a year on air filters in an attempt to reduce my exposure
inside my home, leave my home and stay elsewhere whenever I can,
and avoid walking in my neighborhood in the evening because the
smoke is often very thick. During the colder months, while people
heat with wood , I have had to keep my windows closed to keep smoke
from coming into my house, creating a situation where "fresh
air" in my home is not a possibility. I may be forced to sell
my home and move, and I know that there are others across the State
in similar or worse situations.
The reasons that many people give for heating their homes with wood
instead of with a cleaner fuel are typically that wood is a renewable
resource; it is a more environmentally sound method of supplying
energy than the production of fuel oil or natural gas; and it will
help Americans be less dependent on foreign oil. After spending
the last six years suffering the effects of wood smoke air pollution
for eight months a year, I have to seriously question whether wood
burning is a acceptable way of achieving these goals, especially
in densely populated areas. There are other strategies we can use
to reduce negative impacts associated with our energy use.
The cost of heating with wood is comparable to heating with oil,
and in past years has been even more expensive. I am confident that
lower income residents can be given access to cleaner fuels instead
of being allowed or encouraged to pollute their own air and their
neighbors' air. Wood burning contributes to poor air quality inside
the homes in which it is occurring.
The BOH in Buckland has agreed to engage in education on this issue.
This is a worthwhile and important thing that the Board can do.
But the majority of this Board has said that there will be no consequences
for those who continue to burn, even if complaints are lodged against
them. I am concerned that, as long as this type of air pollution
remains legally acceptable, it will continue to exist and the public
health will remain unprotected.
I have personally spoken with others in Massachusetts with similar
complaints. Amherst and Northampton have opacity regulations for
wood stoves. I know that some Boards deal with this issue on a case
by case basis and have been able to convince the wood burner to
stop burning. I also know of a number of people who complained to
their Boards and have gotten similar responses to those I have described
here. We are left with difficult choices when our Boards choose
not to help us. We can move, and run the risk that we will be faced
with the same problem in our next home. We can stay and continue
to try to influence our neighbors, our Boards and other lawmakers,
or go to court with expensive private nuisance complaints. Or we
can suffer in silence. Unfortunately, this last option is the most
common response. I know of a number of people in Franklin County
who are adversely affected by inhaling wood smoke but who are unwilling
to complain about it for a number of reasons. One of these reasons
is that they believe there is nothing that can be done.
Where I live, there are at least twenty homes that burn wood on
a regular basis within 2000 feet of my house, and I am downwind
of most of them. About half of them moved into their homes and started
burning wood since the time I first complained. The wood smoke problem
is not getting better in Buckland. Wanting clean air to breathe
is not a lifestyle choice, an aesthetic preference, a financial
consideration or the special desire of very sensitive individuals.
It is a necessity for health and well-being. Wood smoke is not a
fact of life. It is the result of choosing to burn wood.
I am hoping that as BOH members, reading this letter will encourage
you to look carefully at the research that has been done on particulate
air pollution exposure and the legal authority that you are entrusted
with, and take seriously the wood smoke complaints that come before
you. As far as I have been able to ascertain, Boards of Health are
our only protection (other than expensive, time-consuming private
lawsuits) from this type of air pollution in Massachusetts.
Janet Sinclair, Buckland Board of Health
"A home with a single wood burning source can elevate
indoor particle concentrations at hundreds of surrounding homes
in the Neighborhood"
Wayne R Ott, Ph.D.
"For those on the receiving end of a neighbor's fireplace or
it is often similar to living with a chain smoker."
Wayne R. Ott, Ph.D.