Among car exhaust, factory fumes and coal-fired power plants, there is one source of air pollution that Connecticut residents know little about: emissions from residential wood smoke.
Earlier this month, The American Lung Association of the Northeast, the Sierra Club of Connecticut and Environment and Human Health, Inc. submitted a legal petition to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) asking that the department set up regulatory standards for residential wood smoke emissions. These emissions come from residential outdoor wood furnaces — sheds connecting to a house that burn wood for purposes of heating — that have been shown to emit dangerous quantities of toxic particles.
“We call it the new secondhand smoke,” said Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health, Inc.
While wood smoke emissions have many of the same components as highly regulated cigarette smoke, wood smoke is almost totally unregulated, both federally and in Connecticut, Alderman said.
The petition is not a petition in the traditional sense, but rather a legal petition that only the three groups have signed. It requests that Connecticut adopt the same wood smoke regulations that the state of Washington put in place around 10 years ago. Under state law, DEEP has 30 days to respond to the petition.
A spokesman for DEEP did not respond to a request for comment.
The type of outdoor wood-burning furnaces that produce these emissions have already been banned in 18 towns across the state, including Hamden and North Haven. The DEEP website currently features a map that catalogs all the complaints from people who were harmed by neighbors’ wood smoke in Connecticut since the year 2005.
“The primary problem is that wood smoke emissions produce damage to the lungs, particularly of children. They contain chemicals that cause cancer,” said David Brown, a public health toxicologist with Environment and Human Health, Inc.
Wood smoke emissions do not travel very far in the air, but are rather a type of point source pollution, which means they are detrimental in immediately surrounding areas, according to Martin Mador YC ’71 FES ’02, legislative and political chair for the Connecticut Chapter of the Sierra Club. Mador said that wood smoke emissions are not only a problem in Connecticut, but across the country. If the state adopts these regulations, it will join the handful of other states across the nation that regulate wood smoke emissions.
While New Haven does not typically have problems with pollution caused by wood smoke emissions — wood-burning furnaces are usually installed in rural areas — it still may affect the city indirectly. In 2012 the state of Connecticut’s asthma identified New Haven as having the highest rate of asthma-related hospitalizations in the state.
“Even if wood smoke is a relatively minor source of air pollution in our city, we should keep in mind that it is being added ‘on top of’ these other existing sources of pollution, and therefore may be a contributor to the much greater rates of asthma we see in parts of our city,” Mark
Abraham, executive director of Data Haven, said in an email.
According to Brown, the issue has been brought to the state legislature’s attention numerous times over the years, yet no regulatory standards have been created. The pushback has come from both homeowners who are reluctant to adjust their stoves to new regulations and political lobbies which have a stake in the wood stove industry, Brown said.
“[The wood stove industry’s] argument has generally been that it’s a cheaper way to burn heat for your house, and the new devices are much cleaner than the older devices,” Brown said. “I think part of the issues is also people saying ‘I can do anything in my yard that I want to do.’”
For now, Alderman said, the groups who submitted the petition will wait and see if the DEEP has any objections.
In 2005, DEEP released a fact sheet that officially stated that emissions from outdoor wood furnaces are harmful to human health.