Commentary: Wood smoke can be a true physical barrier

People can no longer smoke in Minnesota indoor establishments, and in many parks. But there is virtually no protection from […]

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People can no longer smoke in Minnesota indoor establishments, and in many parks. But there is virtually no protection from wood smoke, which contains hundreds of the same toxic chemicals and fine particulates as tobacco smoke. Wood smoke is in fact far more concentrated, travels farther, and remains chemically active in the body up to 40 hours longer. It is time for wood smoke to be recognized as a formidable physical barrier to the use and enjoyment of public spaces for many. To those with breathing disabilities such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiac disease, diabetes and other disabilities, wood smoke can be deadly.

Wood-burning fireplaces, fire pits, restaurant grills and bonfires at public events are spewing out caustic fumes at unprecedented levels. Studies show that a single, small bonfire burning for one hour emits as much pollution as one diesel truck traveling 580 miles! The World Health Organization states that wood smoke is a proven trigger for asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature deaths.

Many of us are forced to remain indoors rather than risk breathing wood smoke when walking, biking, and gardening, attending public activities or watching children play sports in parks. Though wood smoke may violate most nuisance ordinances, cities are reluctant to enforce them, despite scientific evidence of harm.

According to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency graphs, residential wood smoke is the largest single contributor to fine particle pollution in Minnesota, more than from vehicle exhaust and all industrial sources combined. Amidst rampant wood burning, it is no coincidence that asthma is the number one reason for school absenteeism.

Because wood smoke can have a delayed reaction for 1-2 days after exposure, many people may not realize that wood smoke was the cause of their asthma or COPD exacerbation. Once airways become inflamed, it can take several days for bronchitis or pneumonia to set in.

Cities are required to remove all barriers to the access of public spaces as an accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), an argument that helped pass our state anti-tobacco laws. But they need a push. A Utah physicians group recently asked the state to prohibit wood burning in densely populated urban areas.

Let us band together and press our cities to fulfill their accessibility requirements by removing wood smoke as a barrier to the large and growing ranks of people with disabilities. They should do this for all citizens, because the air belongs to everyone; not just those who can tolerate wood smoke. See for wood smoke facts.


Julie Mellum
President, Take Back the Air

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