Committed To A Wood Burning World

Burning wood; picturesque, but deadly.

It’s no secret I’m fond of Sam Harris, and his latest blog post on wood burning and the effects of wood smoke is yet another tour de force by the rational thinker. In it, he compares our aversion to the idea that burning wood – in any quantity, at any time, for any reason – is harmful, to the faithful’s aversion that they might be wrong: that there is no god, no divine morality, no “son” sent by a father, and so on. In his latest post, entitled The Fireplace Delusion, he spells out what scientists have known for decades:

There is no amount of wood smoke that is good to breathe. It is at least as bad for you as cigarette smoke, and probably much worse. (One study found it to be 30 times more potent a carcinogen.) The smoke from an ordinary wood fire contains hundreds of compounds known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, and irritating to the respiratory system. Most of the particles generated by burning wood are smaller than one micron—a size believed to be most damaging to our lungs. In fact, these particles are so fine that they can evade our mucociliary defenses and travel directly into the bloodstream, posing a risk to the heart. Particles this size also resist gravitational settling, remaining airborne for weeks at a time.

Much of his evidence comes from a 2007 study from the University of Georgia, which describes that wood smoke is harmful, without exception, but the question remains how to address it: should we regulate it like cigarette smoke? Also of concern to the researchers is the specific particle size of wood smoke, and how it effects us versus smoke with different size particles.

This was news to me. Though there is much I know nothing about, I try to inform myself about the various health issues facing our society, from environmental toxins to lack of fitness, and of course (my favorite) diet. So to think that wood stoves – a staple in my grandparents’ house – and wood-burning cook-outs (of which I’m a big fan) are all harmful and pollute the environment, well, that’s kind of a shock. And that’s the point, says Harris. You try reconciling the long-time belief, habit, ritual, and comfort of wood burning lore with the current science that says unequivocally: it’s bad! That’s what we are up against, when it comes to the delusional believer, the Christian, or the Muslim, versus the rational freethinkers. They are committed to a world where there is a heaven, a hell, a god, and a set of rules they have to follow, much as wood burners are:

Most people I meet want to live in a world in which wood smoke is harmless. Indeed, they seem committed to living in such a world, regardless of the facts. To try to convince them that burning wood is harmful—and has always been so—is somehow offensive. The ritual of burning wood is simply too comforting and too familiar to be reconsidered, its consolation so ancient and ubiquitous that it has to be benign. The alternative—burning gas over fake logs—seems a sacrilege.

Not content to merely trust Harris’ research, I made a quick search using Pubmed and Google, and sure enough, there’s plenty of research out there: a toxicology review in 2002 claiming that ” exposure to woodsmoke, particularly for children, represents a potential health hazard.” A link between wood smoke exposure and lower respiratory disease (1990). Sydney, Australia claims that wood smoke adds billions to health bills and is considering banning wood stoves all together (The Herald article). The site burningissues.org (by Clean Air Revival) has a comprehensive list of the science behind wood smoke and its effects.

I’m all for renewable energy, and certainly we can make wood go round and round in a natural cycle through burning, composting, planting, etc. But at what cost? Just because wood has been burned for thousands of years doesn’t mean we should keep doing it, even if it is more “natural” than gas or electric. Those aren’t great either, but solar remains off in the horizon, inhibited by the cost that corporation aren’t willing to put into it.

Harris gives two strong arguments here: 1) burning wood is a bad idea, and 2) the resistance to #1 should illustrate the resistance the religious feel to changing their minds. Another great analogy by a great mind. For an up-to-date look at the wood smoke crisis, Harris suggests San Francisco-based group Families for Clean Air.

Photo: frostnova