February 2004

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 me.

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 wood smoke,
it is often similar to living with a chain smoker."
Wayne R. Ott, Ph.D.