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Why So Many Spare The Air Days? The Air District Responds

It's all about incomplete combustion and large particulates, says air district spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

There have been an unusual number of Spare The Air days so far this year, and that has caused the usual chorus of protests on Patch to become louder and more numerous.

A typical complaint goes something like this: with four major refineries in the Bay Area, why does the Bay Area Air Quality Management District feel the need to ban fires in home fireplaces, particularly on cold, and even rainy, days?

People have burned fires in their homes and backyards for years, with seemingly no ill effects on health. So why are there suddenly a rash of days when people are legally prohibited from having a cozy fire in the privacy of their own homes?

Patch asked air district spokesman Ralph Borrmann for a few minutes. Here’s what he had to say:

Patch: Why can refineries operate normally on Spare The Air days, but private citizens can’t have a simple fire in their fireplace?

Borrmann: The air district does regulate and enforce regulations and restrictions on refineries. But you have to keep in mind that there are also roughly 1.4 million fireplaces in the Bay Area. Fifty percent of the homes in this area have fireplaces. They produce much larger particulates than refineries. When those levels look as if they are going to be elevated on certain days, that’s when we restrict wood burning. Fine particulate pollution is one of the greatest health threats. It’s associated with asthma, heart disease and other very serious illnesses. If you can’t see it, people assume it isn’t there. But that’s not true with drinking water or eating food, and it’s not true with air. That’s why we have a monitoring network, and a technical staff that has decades of experience.

Patch: People have been burning fires since the stone age. What’s the problem now?

Borrmann: In the last couple of the decades, we’ve learned a lot about wood smoke that we didn’t know in the past. High amount of particulates are linked to respiratory incidents. So just as the air district regulates industrial sources of pollution, it also has authority to regulate fireplaces. We are also required by federal law—the Clean Air Act--to meet standards of clean air. It makes sense that when we believe air quality to be unhealthy, to have a ban on those days.

Patch: What about rainy days?  

Borrmann: Wind is the major factor. You can have a little bit of rain and still not have enough pressure in the system to move the pollutants and ventilate them. You need wind. What’s been happening this month is this system sitting over northern California is impacting the Bay Area, and it’s not allowing for the dispersal of pollutants. They build up day by day. On certain days they’re going to peak. That’s when we call an alert. People think particulates are washed out by the rain. When we talk about particulates, especially fine particulates, they behave like a gas to some extent. They don’t necessarily get washed out. They penetrate the body’s defenses.

There are particulates associated with any type of combustion. Refineries put out air pollution. Diesel trucks put out a lot of particulates. They’re a concern, and the air district has focused on the Port of Oakland to reduce particulates in that location.

So what you see when you see smoke is incomplete combustion. When it comes out of a chimney, it’s not combusting it cleanly, it’s still highly polluting. And that’s very harmful. We know a lot more now about the health effects of things than we did decades ago. As we know more, the health standards issued by the federal government get stricter.  

RBCruz January 30, 2013 at 12:06 AM
I'm in Walnut Creek and whenever any hose water hits the pavement, asphalt or even my front door, a white sudsy foam forms...What is up with that?...no word ever from the "authorities".
Andrew L. January 30, 2013 at 04:27 AM
A few thoughts on the arbitrary wood-burning ban: -- The BAAQMD should make an exception to allow use of EPA-certified stoves and fireplace inserts, as many other air quality districts do, including the ones covering the Seattle and Sacramento metropolitan areas. Failure to do so is simple laziness, and ignores the science that shows the tremendous difference in outputs of particulate matter/smoke between open fireplaces and EPA-certified inserts and stoves; -- Someone made the odd claim that banning wood burning will save future generations. This makes no sense -- wood is a renewable resource and the harvest and burning of firewood have no probable adverse impact on future generations. Heating via fossil fuels, however, depletes non-renewable sources of energy; -- Someone else said we should trust the BAAQMD's science as they are doing the right thing. This is a soft-headed thought and anyone who agrees should recall the MTBE fiasco of 15 years ago, where "doing the right thing" resulted in severe groundwater contamination and greater use of fossil fuels; -- There is something inherently creepy and, dare I say it, un-American about a government entity encouraging citizens to report anonymously on their neighbors.
Chris J Kapsalis January 30, 2013 at 05:20 AM
I can see people who get reported not knowing who reported them and what that can breed, mistrust of your nieghbors, false accusations and who knows? Nieghbors then thinking so and so must have done it, so they report them for a code violation or not having a permit. Yes, pitting nieghbors against eachother is very creepy. I will bet the farm that in just one week on planet earth more wood is burned by nature than allt he wood burnded since caveman days by humans. We are but a drop in the bucket of wood burners on earth. If yu have ever been close to a forrest fire and flames 400 feet high and the sheer power and smoke they generate, fuel they consume, it all goes into our thin little livable space of some 25,000 feet film around the globe, and has for millions of years. Does anyone honestly think fire place fires , that are rarely if ever used these days anyway, if they even have a fire place, matters? This agency could be scrapped and like someone said, use the money for somethign we need. What a waste. And yes, wood is renewable. Fossil fuel is not, not in our lifetimes anyway. Get real. And what about chiminey sweeps? I have never even seen one, ever, or smoke coming out of a chiminey very rarely. Let us enjoy our fires, on cold nights warm up a bit by the fire. You want to make a difference, try reducing the millions of cars and trucks buzzing all around the bay area everyday. Now that is the real polluters.
Penny Benitez-Exner January 30, 2013 at 05:02 PM
I am married to a Chimney Sweep -They do exist..
Chris J Kapsalis January 30, 2013 at 05:46 PM
Well there are probably 100,000 auto macanics to every one chimney sweep, so thats my point, what I said is I never seen one working, ever. I do believe fire place fires are about a million times less a problem for our air than cars, trucks, and other fossil fuels, like coal used to make electricty and so on. But they got peopel buying it?

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