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.