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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.  

David Britt January 31, 2013 at 05:54 PM
It might have something to do with the well studied and proven health effects of the former weighted against the lack of any such evidence for the latter.
David Britt January 31, 2013 at 05:56 PM
"The BAAQMD has produced no evidence that I have seen, but of course I've never looked." Dismaying.
Mike Henn February 04, 2013 at 06:11 AM
The BAAQMD started as a management district to control industry, but as industry dried up in the Bay Area, this bureaucracy almost lost their reason to exist. Statutorily, they can't control the one remaining big AQ offender, the transportation sector, so they switched to ever less significant sources of air pollutions, like the use of solvents in auto repair shops and drycleaners. They have even gone after lawn mowers and backyard BBQs. When they were just about to wither away, they hit on controlling fireplaces, and now they're a growth industry again with a new profit center (fines). They do not tell you that burning firewood is carbon neutral, but burning its alternative of fossil fuels is very harmful in terms of GHG emissions.
David Britt February 04, 2013 at 06:49 AM
It's hard to argue for burning wood as carbon neutral. I suppose it could be if you walk or bicycle to a nearby young-growth tree and either prune it or cut it down and replant. I'll spot you the embodied emissions related to the cutting tool and the purchase of the replacement tree. As you scale wood fuel up to the community level it gets to be quite carbon intensive, albeit with considerable variation based on the logging practices. But you have to factor in land use change (often old growth forest is replaced for "sustainable" logging; a big CO2 hit) as well as transportation of the wood and the machinery used to turn it into fireplace-sized logs. If you burn inefficiently and your particulates make it to anywhere snowy it will reduce the albedo of the snow in a feedback with melting (this effect is much more significant where large populations cooking over wood fires are near large snowy areas like the Himalayas, so maybe we can ignore it for the Bay Area, but it could be significant). Unless you're very careful about where your wood comes from and how it gets to you it's probably only modestly competitive with gas heating and may in fact be more carbon intensive. By far the better carbon strategy (as it always is) is to reduce the heating rather than to change the fuel. I would love to see AQMD (or anyone) go after transportation though. Reduced BART fares and higher bridge tolls on bad air days? That wouldn't do much for diesel, but it's a start.
David Britt February 04, 2013 at 07:11 AM
Hmm, a little research suggests the BART idea is not very effective (http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Sparing-ourselves-pollution-solutions-2492255.php). I guess I should leave it to the pros :)

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